In the late 19th century, thousands of premature babies were placed inside incubators to save their lives. But this technology served more than one purpose. It was considered a boardwalk sideshow at the newly opened amusement park called Luna Park in Coney Island. It sounds nuts, but incubators were a source of amusement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So, you could literally walk into a world’s fair and find a bunch of premature babies inside incubators. But these babies weren’t just there for kicks. They were fighting for their lives and they owed it all to a marvelous German man named Martin Couney.
Beth Allen’s outlook was grim when she was born three months premature on May 23, 1941. She was one-pound-ten-ounces and neonatal care was still a relatively controversial concept in medicine. But Beth’s family wasn’t ready to give up on their daughter. Despite some hesitation, they turned to the one place in the world who could help Beth: Coney Island.
Luna Park in Coney Island wasn’t exactly the place you’d consider ideal to get medical advice. Coney Island was known for its sideshow stalls, roller coasters, and loads of tourists, but Beth’s mom didn’t go there for the rides. She was there to take Beth to the Luna Park clinic where their savior awaited.
A German man named Martin Couney introduced himself and then put Beth in one of his incubators. Couney was born in 1869 in the former state of Prussia, and many people assumed he was a medical graduate from Leipzig University. He was even called the incubator doctor. But historians later doubted that he was an actual doctor.
At the time, no one questioned his medical claims, but they were skeptical about the incubators. Even Beth’s mom refused to take her to Couney’s clinic because she insisted her daughter wasn’t a freak. But Couney managed to persuade her to allow him to take care of the neonatal infant before it was too late.
Like modern-day incubators, the devices would provide a stable environment for neonatal babies. The machine collected and heated external air to keep the babies comfortable while getting rid of stale air using an exhaust vent. Once the babies were healthy enough to survive on their own, they would be returned to the parents.
Couney had first seen the baby incubators on display at the 1896 World’s Fair placed by Pierre Budin. Budin was a French doctor who researched the technology extensively. When Couney saw the display of premmies Budin had received on loan from a Berlin hospital, he knew this exhibit could save the lives of babies while attracting a crowd willing to pay to see it.
By the turn of the 20th century, Couney had exhibited his incubators at fairs across the entire globe. Eventually, he set up the Luna Clinic in Coney Island. But it’s been suggested that he changed his last name from Cohn to Couney to avoid anti-Semitism. From that point on, customers eagerly traveled from all over to see Couney’s device in action.
Couney was hailed an expert in the neonatal field, but his sideshow also wowed those who attended. Nurses would put diamond rings on the wrists of the premature babies to show the spectators how small the premature babies were. But not everyone saw Couney’s incubators as a medical miracle.
At the time, the medical profession saw no reason to waste time and money on premature babies. The incubators were originally developed by French obstetrician Stephane Tarnier, and both Budin and Couney saw the potential in the technology. But many felt he was exploiting helpless babies and their families for money.
Although some questioned Couney’s motives, his devotion to premature babies was commendable. Under the care of his staff, the babies received around-the-clock care in the incubators and the nurses would also take the babies upstairs to feed them. So, it seemed like he certainly deserved every penny he earned.
Couney might have been seen as a quack in his time, but the man was very generous with the babies. In those days, caring for each premature baby cost $15. Couney used the money he earned from the price of admission to pay the expenses for his clinic and the cost of the treatment for his tiny patients. So basically, the families of these babies didn’t pay a dime.
Unlike most doctors, Couney didn’t keep any records of the patients he had saved over the years. He did, however, claim that he saved 85 percent of the neonatal babies that came into his clinic from hospitals all over the country, including his daughter, Hildegard, who grew up to help her old man out at an Atlantic incubator exhibit.
As noble as Couney’s gesture was, he wasn’t the doctor many people assumed he actually was. In 2016, new information was uncovered by historians that shook everything they thought they knew about him. For starters, it didn’t seem that he had ever been a licensed doctor, and he certainly never studied under Budin.
Journalist Claire Prentice wrote in Smithsonian magazine that no one could locate Couney’s thesis. Prentice explained that to become a doctor in Germany, a person must write a thesis. She added that the US National Library of Medicine keeps copies of German records, but there was no thesis for Couney.
Although Couney’s claims as a medical professional remain in doubt, one thing is very clear. Had these allegations surfaced at the time when his incubators were in place, it would have jeopardized what he was trying to accomplish, which was to save the lives of these babies. Who knows if incubators would have been implemented in hospitals if this had happened?
US hospitals didn’t use incubators at the time, so Couney and his clinic were both a total lifesaver. Even after it became obvious that the technology showed promise, New York City hospital refused Couney’s kind offer to donate his equipment in 1940. The institutions claimed that this was because they didn’t have enough staff properly trained to use the incubators.
Some historians believe that the hospital’s refusal to use Couney’s technology served a darker purpose. In the early 20th century, eugenics and selective breeding were quite popular, so many people felt that premature babies were unworthy of a chance to become adults. Fortunately, Couney had a more humane philosophy.
Although the culture at the time was considering genetic perfection, Couney went in another direction. Couney wanted to give these infants a shot at life, and that in itself was his reward. He didn’t profit financially, but he received something even more priceless. The children he saved would visit him as they got older, like Beth Allen.
After getting a second chance at life at Luna Park, Beth went back to pay Couney a visit on a special day. Without Couney’s intervention, Beth wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale. So she paid him a visit on Father’s Day to thank him. Couney wasn’t her dad, of course. But he did give her a second chance at life.
In 1950, Couney passed away, and he left this world the way he came into it: in other words, penniless. But thanks to his incredible contribution, hospitals eventually saw the logic of using this technology and now millions of premature babies are able to survive. Shortly before his passing, he claimed his work was done now that the incubators had received widespread acceptance.