How one man saved a generation of premature babies

Beth Allen and a picture of Martin Couney holding her as a babyImage copyright

For years doctors in the US made little attempt to save the lives of premature babies, but there was one place distressed parents could turn for help – a sideshow on Coney Island. Here one man saved thousands of lives, writes Claire Prentice, and eventually changed the course of American medical science.

In the early years of the 20th Century, visitors to Coney Island could see some extraordinary attractions. A tribe transported from the Philippines, “midget villages”, a re-enactment of the Boer War by 1,000 soldiers including veterans from both sides, and death-defying roller coaster rides. But for 40 years, from 1903 to 1943, America’s premier amusement park was also home to a genuine life-and-death struggle, played out beside the surf.

Martin Couney’s Infant Incubator facility was one of Coney Island’s most popular exhibits. “All the World Loves a Baby” read a sign above the entrance. Inside, premature babies fought for their lives, tended by a team of dedicated medical staff. To see the babies, you paid 25 cents. A guard-rail prevented visitors getting too close to the tiny figures encased in incubators.

Why were premature babies, who would now be cared for in a neonatal ward, displayed as entertainment?

Image copyright
Beth Allen

The man who ran the exhibit was Martin Couney, dubbed “the incubator doctor” – and although he practised in the sideshows, his operation was cutting-edge.

Couney employed a team of nurses and wet nurses who lived onsite, along with two local physicians.

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