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Fairground attraction

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By Bystander

An odd pioneer of neonatology was a New York physician called Martin Couney who used an extraordinary ploy to provide care for premature babies.

Born in France, and trained in Germany, Dr Couney began his work at a time when premature infants were not expected to survive. Although incubators had been developed and adopted in Europe, the US medical establishment was for some reason slow to accept them.

Dr Couney had the crazy idea of funding the care of premature babies by exhibiting them in incubators at one of New York’s Coney Island amusement parks and charging punters to view them. In 1903, he set up a sideshow at Luna Park with rows of incubators occupied by tiny infants — few of them weighing more than 1.5kg — lying under heaters and breathing filtered air. The sideshow staff consisted of 15 well trained medical technicians and five wet-nurses. The babies were sourced from New York hospitals that were unable to care for them. One baby was Dr Couney’s own premature daughter, who had weighed less than 1.3kg at birth.

The babies’ care was entirely funded by Luna Park punters, who paid 25 cents to gasp and coo at them and often returned time and again.

The sideshow shared the Coney Island boardwalk with exhibits such as Violetta the Armless Legless Wonder and Princess Wee Wee, “the world’s smallest perfect woman”.  The baby show was promoted with a large sign reading “Infant Incubators with Living Infants”. Couney also exhibited his incubators at the World’s Fairs in New York in 1933 and in Chicago in 1939.

The Luna Park exhibit continued until 1945, by which time US hospitals had finally accepted the value of incubators.

At least 8,000 premature babies passed through Dr Couney’s sideshows, and he was credited with saving at least 6,500 of them. But because of his unorthodox approach he was shunned by the US medical community and denounced as a mere showman. When he died in 1950, aged 80, he was broken and forgotten.

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