Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine, Claire Prentice (2016)

My Edition:coneyisland
Title: Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine
Author: Claire Prentice
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Device: Kindle Fire
Year: 2016
Pages: 95
For a plot summary

About a year ago, I came across a segment on NPR that told the strange and wonderful story of an exhibit of incubator babies at Coney Island amusement park. Organized by German-born doctor Martin Couney, who saved thousands of premature infants with this new-fangled contraption, appealing to the public was the best way to show the skeptical medical establishment premature infants had a chance of survival.

And who would have thought trying to save babies from certain death would cause such controversy?

At the end of the 19th century when Couney started exhibiting his incubator babies, the survival rate of a premature or underweight infant was dismal. In general, 15-20 percent of infants did not live to their first birthday, which was devastating enough; the rate of death for premature babies was much higher. When a woman delivered such an underdeveloped baby, all resources went to her survival, as the baby’s death was just expected.

“Take it to the people” then if doctors and hospitals are skeptical. So Couney brought his doctors, nurses, wet nurses and 6 incubators to the Berlin Exposition in May of 1896. His set up consisted of a room for the nurses, a separate one for the male physicians, a second for the weighing, feeding, changing and bathing of the infants and a third large space which was open to the viewing public: the displays of incubators.

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So odd was the concept of babies nurtured in a box, that the exhibit was not in the official science and technology building but in the amusement section “sandwiched between the ‘Congo village’ and the Tyrolean Yodelers.” During the expo, Couney took in “batches of babies” bringing them to 6 pounds, all surviving, all going home with their parents.

The next year, Couney displayed the incubators at the Victorian Era Exhibition, where visitors picked out their favorite babies, often returning to watch their progress. It should be mentioned that Couney never charged the parents who brought their babies to him. Like any exhibit, the public was charged a fee, so it was from that Couney was able to pay his staff and buy equipment. It must also be noted Couney accept all babies regardless of race or class during a time when many places of amusement, not to mention hospitals, were segregated.

At some point after this exhibition Couney came to the United States and attained citizenship. (According to the author Claire Prentice, some of Couney’s early personal life is a little sketchy). His first American incubator exhibit occurred in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi International Exhibition in the city of Omaha. Though hospitals would not release any infant born prematurely to Couney, desperate parents did. And the incubators were always full. Couney was at the exhibit every day explaining to the public how the incubators worked; that they replicated the body temperature of the mother, filtered in clean air to keep away germs and in such a clean supportive environment the babies thrived gradually gaining the requisite 6 pounds before being allowed to leave the incubators in the arms of their parents.

After several more exhibitions in the U.S., Couney was invited to a new amusement park on Coney Island, New York, called Luna Park. The spectacular attractions drew a large audience and after just one summer became the entertainment capital of the world. Couney was promised a prime location on the main thoroughfare.

Come this way, ladies and gentlemen! See the tiniest little bits of humanity in the world warmed, nourished and fed, given a good fair start to become strong and able-bodied citizens. Maybe the future President is inside! Maybe there is another J. Pierpont Morgan breathing the pure tar scented air! All done by the baby incubator! Step right in and watch the babies grow well and strong before your eyes! 

With a permanent base on Coney Island, Couney continued to exhibit the incubators at world’s fairs and exhibitions. Though his success rate was phenomenal attention from the medical establishment was slow to come. By the late 1920s, most hospitals still had no incubators and the few doctors who believed in the technology had no recourse but to send their premature patients to Couney at Luna Park.

Prentice goes into detail about Couney’s personal life, including his marriage and the birth of a premature daughter, his name change from Cohen to Couney and his fight to bring members of his family to America from Germany before Hitler’s reign would make it impossible for them to leave.

Prentice also reveals a stunning bombshell regarding Couney’s medical training, that is, whether or not he actually had any and what such a truth would bring to bear on his life’s work. Perhaps he was lucky that his technology was so derided by medical men and that he had to operate outside the medical establishment; surely, working in a hospital alongside actual doctors he would be caught as a fraud?

couney1However, does this knowledge, if it is true, take away from the fact that what Couney created worked? He saved thousands of children with a machine that is now part of every hospital on the planet. He was always careful to have doctors working with him who could take care of any medical emergency and trained nurses who believed in his work. He made it possible for babies who were given up on to live, and to grow up and create families of their own. His official medical credentials may always remain a mystery. But his contribution to medicine and to society can never be in doubt.

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