Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dr. Couney's Babies at Coney Island

File this one under "Did you know...WHAT, he DID?"

From 1903 to 1943, Dr. Martin Arthur Couney had a very unusual show at Coney Island: an incubator full of human babies. Dr. Couney would take in premature babies, incubate them in public, and charge money for people to come and watch.

According to the July 6, 1929 issue of The New Yorker, here's how it all started. Previous to Couney's incubator, nobody had figured out how to keep premature babies warm while still providing them with clean air. In Breslau, Silesia, Couney built a tall chimney which could suck in dust-free air from above the rooftops. It worked!
An American exposition was travelling through Europe then...and the manager persuaded him to come to this country to exhibit his invention as a sideshow. He first set up in Omaha, Nebraska. Eventually Fred Thompson, the old showman who started Luna Park, brought him to Coney Island. That was in 1903. He has been there since and saved about six thousand lives.
This location had a surprising benefit.
One lady, expectant, took a ride on a roller-coaster, had her baby prematurely, and was not more than a block away from an incubator. Pretty handy!
How could Couney afford to do this? The way EVERY sideshow performer did.
The gate receipts have always been adequate, and the twenty-five cents which the public pays supports the institution, gives Dr. Couney a profit, and enables him to employ two physicians and eleven nurses and provide free board and lodging for his little red beginners.
I wonder if the nurses wore spangly outfits and, for an encore, juggled the babies.

Some final information that you may find interesting.
Every three hours the babies are taken out and fed. They get only human milk, from wet nurses, and occasionally a drop of whiskey...

The babies are always grateful, but sometimes the parents aren't. One father, seeing his tiny son attracting boardwalk crowds, demanded that he be given a percentage of the gate.


Kimber said...

Hmmm...this gives me some ideas...

Gary said...

This is wild! I live just a few stops from Coney Island, but never heard of the good Doctor.

Maybe the nurses did juggle the babies, thus inspiring the now-reviled "Shaken Baby" app for the iPhone???

Has the drop of whiskey become a medical standard for preemies? It seems that it's a necessity for some doctors...

Anonymous said...

Think of what he could have done with OctoMom

Adam Thornton said...

Public incubation sideshows are certainly a lost art! No wonder kids today are so emotionally stunted. Or maybe it's the lack of whiskey.

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