Premies in showbiz: The twisted history of incubators in Coney Island freak shows
Who would have guessed that the life-saving device known as incubator for premature babies would have a bizarre history in the Long Island entertainment destination of New York. Considered a jaw-dropping circus-like exhibit during the early 1900s, premature babies were lined up for people to see while they were enclosed in a visible glass fighting for their lives.
The sideshow, facilitated by a man who claimed to be a licensed physician by the name of Martin Arthur Couney, would charge the public to view the premature babies. He was known as the “incubator doctor,” something that is barely mentioned in historical and medical books.
An idea devised from the Berlin Exposition
While attending a Berlin Exposition in 1896, Dr. Couney came up with the plan of bringing the glass and metal incubator to the United States. He started the display in the Coney Island boardwalk in 1903. People lined up to see the struggling preemies under a banner Couney hung that read: All the World Loves a Baby.
Admission was $0.25. Inside, rows upon rows of incubators holding tiny babies inside. Dr. Couney also had a team of wet nurses and two physicians who took care of the babies. They were fed breast milk and vitamin-loaded meals. The nurses would also be allowed to cuddle and kiss the babies; an act which doctors say put the babies’ fragile immune system at risk.
Premature incubation slowly became medically accepted
During those days, it was often thought that Dr. Couney’s incubator was a hoax. A lot of people were disgruntled at the act of putting the children’s struggle on display for financial gain. Unbeknownst to many, the babies were actually well-cared for. They were given the medical care and attention needed to help them through their challenging first weeks of life.
Incubators did not become a maternity ward mainstay until the 1950s. It was only when people recognized its significance in saving premature babies’ lives that people started to accept its usefulness.
In a bizarre and twisted way, Couney’s freak show helped usher in medical advancement for caring for premature babies. The truth can be stranger than fiction, indeed.