Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Coney Island’s Baby Incubators – Podcast #40

Whenever I tell the story of Coney Island’s baby incubators, people tend to almost immediately react with some form of disgust. They quickly question why anyone could or would want to place premature babies on display in a carnival sideshow exhibit. Yet, by the time I finish, most take a more sympathetic and understanding view of this unusual piece of medical history.

To start, I need to place the story in a bit of context as to what was going on at the time. If a child was born prematurely prior to the 1940s, there was little hope of survival. Hospitals at the end of the nineteenth and early 20th century had to deal with the high mortality rate of full-term infants, so little thought, time, or money was provided for the preemies that were assumed, at the time, to have little chance of survival.

In 1878, a leading Parisian obstetrician named Etienne Stephane (E.S) Tarnier was visiting an exhibition and came across a warming chamber for chickens that intrigued him. He asked the zookeeper to build him a similar box that would be large enough to hold one or two premature babies. Two years later Tarnier was using his warm-air incubator at Paris’s Maternite hospital. While crude in design, Tarnier was able to reduce infant mortality by 28% over a three-year period. One of Tarnier’s students, a pediatrician named Pierre Budin, further improved on these incubators.
And this is where the main character in our story comes in.

Another doctor, Martin Arthur Couney, was doing his post-doctorate work under the guidance of Dr. Budin. In 1896, Dr. Budin asked Dr. Couney to display his newly improved incubator at the Berlin Exposition to generate some much-needed publicity for his preemie ward and ultimately gain more funding and space. Couney hit upon the idea of placing real premature babies into the incubators to make it more interesting. The six-child exhibit was called the Kinderbrutanstalt, which literally means “child hatchery”.

Maybe not a politically correct term, but it worked. Even less politically correct was that the exhibit was in the amusement section of the exposition. Several batches of children were provided by Berlin’s Charity Hospital, mainly because they had little chance of survival, but by the end of the show, all the babies had survived. An admission fee was charged, which was intended to cover all of the expenses incurred. The exhibit was a phenomenal success, and the exhibit made a substantial profit.

This led to exhibit after exhibit, first in Europe and then in the United States. In 1903, Frederic Thompson opened what was then the largest amusement park ever built called Luna Park in Coney Island, NY. Thompson convinced Couney to open a permanent exhibit in his Coney Island project and Couney agreed. It quickly became Coney Island’s most popular sideshow attraction.

An interesting side note should be mentioned here: two of Couney’s siblings used the more Anglicized pronunciation of Coney, so it was a match made in heaven. Coney’s baby exhibit on Coney Island.

Couney insisted that his show be run in the most professional manner possible. In a lot of ways, it was like a small hospital. There was a long row of a dozen or so incubators widely spaced along a wall. If you do a quick search on the web, you will find some excellent pictures of the exhibits. They were very bright, clean, and professional in design.

Warm, filtered air was streamed into each of the incubators and a staff of nurses attended to the babies day and night.
At the beginning of each season, Couney would hire four or five wet nurses to feed the preemies. All of the wet nurses were kept out of view and lived with their own full-term baby at the incubator facility until its close in the fall. To make sure that the babies received the highest quality milk, a cooking staff prepared strict diets for the wet nurses. If a wet nurse was caught consuming a forbidden food, say a Nathan’s Famous Coney Island hot dog, she would be fired on the spot.

Martin Couney, his daughter Hildegarde, and a boy look at a baby in an incubator.
Martin Couney, his daughter Hildegarde, and a boy look at a baby in an incubator. New York Public Library image.

That does not mean that everything was exactly on the up-and-up. Nurses were encouraged to add more clothing as the babies grew to give the illusion that the babies were tinier than they really were. His head nurse Louise Recht wore an oversized ring so that she could show the viewing public how tiny each baby’s hands were. And while everything was serious inside the baby incubator exhibits, there were barkers out on the boardwalk trying to steer customers in. One of them was named Archibald Leach. The world knows him better under his stage name of Cary Grant. I think he should have stuck with the better-sounding Archibald Leach.

There was initial criticism that Couney used the babies as a money-making scheme to line his own pockets. And while he certainly did make money and have expensive tastes, most of the 25-cent admission was used to cover the cost of care. Couney never accepted any payment from parents that brought their babies in for care. In addition, he made no distinction whether a baby was rich or poor, black or white. All babies were treated equally.

And while he never took a single penny from the parents, he was always puzzled by their unappreciative attitude when the babies were finally taken home. It became clear that not only did the child need help to develop properly but work also needed to be done so that parent-child bond was properly formed.

His own daughter Hildegarde was a product of the baby incubators, having been six weeks premature in February 1907. The exhibit was closed for the winter, but Couney had an incubator retrieved to keep her alive. She eventually grew up to become a registered nurse and eventually went to work for her father.

While Couney had established his home base in Coney Island, exhibits at other shows continued. They include Buffalo, NY; Portland, Oregon; Mexico City; Atlantic City, Chicago, and so on. These shows were typically a huge success. For example, during its 10-month run at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, the baby incubators exhibit took in over $72,000.

They are pretty much forgotten today by most people, but when the Dionne quintuplets – the first set ever to survive infancy – were born in Canada in May of 1934, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst attempted to hire Couney and his services to capitalize on their fame. Couney declined claiming that he was concerned that there would be no gas to heat his incubators in the rural woods of Ontario. He said publicly that he needed to stay behind and care for the thirty or so babies already in his facility. In reality, Couney confided that he thought that the quints had little chance of survival and didn’t want to face that failure being highly publicized. It could destroy the reputation of his baby incubator exhibits, which would cause him financial hardship and probably the loss of countless preemie lives.

But eventually, the end did come. An elaborate exhibit was set up at the 1939-1940 New York’s World’s Fair, which would be his 22nd and final exhibition. The overhead at the fair was huge, which not only required a large investment on Couney’s part, but also that the fair operators required 25% of the gross receipts to be turned over to them. In addition, the incubator babies, which Couney had been displaying at various exhibitions for nearly 45 years was now old news to the public. By the end of the World’s Fair, Couney would be broke and his finances would never recover.

Couney continued his Coney Island operation for a few more years but finally closed it down in 1943. Coney Island as a whole had gone downhill, and the baby incubators were no longer profitable. But all was not lost. Cornell University opened a training and research center for premature babies at their New York Hospital. Their facility was remarkably similar in design to Couney’s exhibits and used much of the technology and skills had developed over his fifty years or so caring for the babies. He passed away at his home in Coney Island on March 1, 1950.

It has been estimated that Couney and his staff saved the lives of 6,500 of the 8,000 or so placed in his care. That is 6,500 babies that would have otherwise died.

When Couney shut down his exhibit for the last time, he was quoted as saying to his nephew “I made propaganda for the preemie.” To that he added, “My work is done.”

And so, it was.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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