Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall at sunset

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Incubator Babies of Coney Island

All the World Loves a Baby!

That was one of the signs that hung above the Baby Incubator attraction at Coney Island. In my pandemic flu novel I have several scenes that take place at that fabled amusement park.

Coney Island specialized in the bizarre and unusual, with sideshows and attractions that today would be considered racist, barbaric, humiliating, and unacceptable to many people. But one of the most unusual and well-loved attractions, little known today, was the Incubator Babies.

In the early part of the 20th Century, babies born at home too early, what we now call preemies, almost always died. The medical specialty of Neonatology was nonexistent then. A French obstetrician, observing the "poultry warmers' used for baby chicks, theorized that the same thing could be done for preemies. But in America, there were no hospitals yet willing to undertake this venture.

Dr. Martin Couney

Until Martin Couney came along. Couney, a protege of another French doctor who perfected the use of the glass and steel boxes, asked Couney to accompany him to the Berlin's World Fair in 1896 to oversee a small group of incubator babies. It was overwhelmingly successful and from there, Couney traveled around the world with the babies to Expositions and World Fairs. At the end of the tour, he decided to settle at Coney Island.

The Baby Incubator acted as a small hospital. It was kept scrupulously clean. The nurses, always dressed in starched white uniforms and caps, came from accredited schools all over the country, and received specialized training to care for the infants. The parents of these preemies were never charged a penny. The admission fee to enter covered all the costs of care, equipment, and staff. The spectators were kept behind an iron guardrail, which you can see in the photo above.

For 40 years, his life's work, Dr. Couney ran the baby incubators. It's estimated, that out of approximately 8,000 preemies who were rushed to his facility, about 6,500 were saved. Some of the incubator babies returned to visit Dr. Couney with their own children.

By 1939, American medicine finally caught up, and preemies began to be treated in hospital settings. In 1943, Dr. Couney closed his little hospital at Coney Island. 

Dr. Couney singlehandedly changed the face of preemie care in America. In 1983, 40 years after he closed the show at Coney Island, I gave birth to twin boys at 33 weeks, and they, too, spent time in those "incubators." Thank you, Dr. Couney, for all your hard work!

Dr. Martin Couney

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