But in the early years of the 20th century, nestled next to a lion-faced man and bearded lady, the attraction drew attention to an entirely different exhibit. From years 1903 to 1943, a large boardwalk sign with the words “All the World Loves a Baby” enticed millions of visitors to view rows of premature babies – in incubators.
All are welcome at Coney IslandThe “Infant Incubators” exhibit was the brainchild of Dr Martin Couney, who was a student under the French physician Dr Pierre Budin. Budin pioneered incubator science in the late 1800s – an idea he based on the early technology in the poultry industry used to hatch chickens.
At the time, doctors made little attempt to save the lives of premature babies, who were considered genetically inferior and destined to die. But even so, the “Kinderbrutanstalt” – or “child hatchery” – proposal was too radical, and unfortunately, unaccepted by hospitals and medical experts, even in America, where Couney came to share the technology.
Left with little option, Couney brought the idea to Coney Island, where misfits were welcomed.
“All the World Loves a Baby”Each incubator was made of glass and steel, stood on legs and was over 1.5m tall. Beneath the bed of fine mesh on which the babies slept, hot water ran through a pipe from a water boiler, with a thermostat regulating the temperature.
A separate pipe channelled fresh air into the incubator, which was carried through absorbent wool soaked in antiseptic and through dry wool, which filtered impurities. The top of the incubator was equipped with a chimney-like device, which had a revolving fan that propelled exhausted air out.
Along with Couney, leading Chicago paediatrician Dr Julius Hess and a team of six nurses and two wet nurses joined in to care for the premature babies, but the feat was an expensive one. It cost about $15 a day – equivalent to $405 today – to care for each infant.
Instead of making parents pay for their children’s medical care, Couney funded his work in a very unorthodox manner – by charging visitors 25 cents to view his facility.
Condemned for his controversial methodsDespite his life-saving work, Couney was shunned by the medical community, often criticised as a self-publicist and fraud because of the sideshow setting in which he operated. He was also accused by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for exploiting the infants and endangering their lives by putting them on display, and there were regular attempts to shut his exhibit down.
Over time, however, the success of Couney’s facility attracted not only flocks of visitors, but also the attention of some of America’s leading paediatricians. Many premature babies were sent to him by doctors, and medical experts attended in person to study his methods.
Couney was finally regarded an important figure in medical history and a hero to many.
“I was a sickly baby,” said Kathy Meyer, who was sent to Couney’s incubator as a newborn. She had been born eight weeks premature in 1939.
“If it wasn’t for Couney, I wouldn’t be here today. And neither would my four children and five grandchildren. We have so much to thank him for.”
A man ahead of his timeCouney took in babies regardless of their race or social class – a remarkably progressive policy at the time – and also emphasised on the importance of breast milk and hygiene. Unlike other doctors, who believed that premature babies should have minimal contact to reduce risks of infection, Couney encouraged his nurses to take the babies out of the incubators to hug and kiss them, firmly believing that they responded to affection.
Throughout the 40 years, Couney successfully saved the lives of approximately 7,500 of the 8,500 babies that were taken to his boardwalk incubators, achieving a remarkable 81% survival rate.
In 1939, Cornell University’s New York hospital started the first official training and research centre for premature babies, and in 1943, after incubators became widely used in hospitals, Couney closed his boardwalk display, saying “My work is done.” MIMS
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