To Save Preemies, a Doctor Made Them Into a Coney Island Sideshow

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Coney Island's Luna Park in the 1920s.Photo: Archive Holdings Inc.

You know Coney Island for its Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs stand, its pleasingly rickety Cyclone and the perhaps questionable ethics of the freak shows in its past. And yet there is a 100-year-old part of its history that you perhaps do not know much about, which the BBC website explores in a piece today. Throughout the first four decades of the 20th century, one of Coney Island’s most popular attractions was essentially a sideshow of premature infants, a controversial exhibit that nonetheless is credited with saving the lives of thousands of the tiniest babies.

The exhibit had a name: “All the World Loves a Baby.” “Inside, premature babies fought for their lives, tended by a team of dedicated medical staff,” writes Claire Prentice, who has written a Kindle Single on Martin Couney, who ran the exhibit. “To see the babies, you paid 25 cents. A guard-rail prevented visitors getting too close to the tiny figures encased in incubators.”

A preemie incubator.Photo: Courtesy of The New York Public Library

These incubators were state-of-the-art for their time, Prentice explains:

The incubators Couney used were the latest models, imported directly from Europe - France was then the world leader in premature infant care with the US lagging several decades behind.

Each incubator was more than 5ft (1.5m) tall, made of steel and glass, and stood on legs. A water boiler on the outside supplied hot water to a pipe running underneath a bed of fine mesh on which the baby slept, while a thermostat regulated the temperature. Another pipe carried fresh air from outside the building into the incubator, first passing through absorbent wool suspended in antiseptic or medicated water, then through dry wool, to filter out impurities. On top, a chimney-like device with a revolving fan blew the exhausted air upwards and out of the incubators.
Martin Couney.Photo: Courtesy of The New York Public Library

Couney’s instinct to try and save the lives of premature babies ran contrary to the thinking inside the medical community at the time, which was, for the most part, that preemies were either not able to be saved, or that they were “weaklings” and thus not worth the effort. Care for premature infants was also very expensive — it would cost parents about $400 per day in 2016 dollars — and yet Couney provided care for free; the admission fee paid by visitors to Coney Island kept the facility running.

Though he saw himself as an advocate for the care of these newborns, many saw him as an opportunist at best and a charlatan at worst, willing to display preemies like they were part of a freak show. Couney’s legacy is a complicated one, and the BBC piece about him is worth a read.