When Premature Babies Were On Display at Coney Island

When Premature Babies Were On Display at Coney Island

Step right up. See Sally Rand doing her famous fan dance. See the Bearded Lady! See the Tiny Babies in the Baby Incubators!

Wait. What?
Invention of the Incubator
In the early 1900s, Dr. Martin A. Couney helped develop the baby incubator—now also known as an isolette—to help save the lives of fragile premature babies. Couney was a pioneer in neonatology, the medical specialty of caring for newborn infants. He learned that an obstetrician in France, Pierre-Constant Boudin, was saving premature and fragile infants by keeping them in enclosed bassinets that kept them warm and in a clean environment. But he could not get the medical establishment of the day interested in using them in hospitals. Premature babies were expected to die in a day or two; parents were told that nothing else could be done.

Creative Marketing
So Couney decided to take a different tack, one that raised eyebrows then and now. Because hospitals would not listen to him, Couney became a showman. He displayed the little babies in their incubators in sideshows on the boardwalk at Coney Island, in Atlantic City, and elsewhere.

He created exhibits starting in 1903 at Luna Park and Dreamland, the top amusement parks at Coney Island. The public was charged 15 cents and later 25 cents a head to see the tiny babies in their incubators. He also displayed his babies and incubators at the World’s Fairs in New York in 1933 and Chicago in 1939.

The signs for the exhibit read “Life Begins at the Baby Incubator.”  The area for the babies was decorated like a cottage and they were cared for by nurses and medical technicians, one of whom was Couney’s daughter. The babies received top-notch medical care in a quiet and professional atmosphere, albeit one with spectators coming through.

Saving Preemie Babies’ Lives
Couney advertised about his incubators and traveled to find newborn premature babies for them, publicizing the fact that he could save their lives. Some parents brought babies to him when their doctor or hospital told them to start planning a funeral. He used the money that was raised by the admission fee to cover the cost of the care, which meant that the parents did not have to pay. When the baby was strong enough to survive without an incubator, he or she went home to their family.

The exhibits were not without controversy. There were attempts by the medical community to shut them down. Couney persisted. Of the estimated 8,500 babies that used his incubators, he is thought to have saved 7,500. In later years, he held reunions with his incubator babies.

In 1943, Couney shut down his last exhibit of incubator babies. He died in 1950. By that time, incubators for premature babies had become standard equipment in most hospitals.

Sources:
ConeyIslandHistory.org. Dr. Martin Couney.

Neonatology on the Web. Dr. Martin Arthur Couney.

Neonatology on the Web. Coney Island Sideshows.

NPR. Babies On Display: When A Hospital Couldn’t Save Them, A Sideshow Did.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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