Rambling Over Coffee: Dr. Couney - the guy who pushed to save preemie babies with incubators - had to display them at carnivals & fairs

Sometimes I'm just reading random news articles and boom!  Suddenly something interesting pops out at me and I think to myself, "How did I never know that???"  and that happened yesterday.

I saw an obituary for a woman who passed away after a long and apparently wonderful life, at the age of 96.  However, had it not been for her father and a man who believed babies born premature could be saved... she would not be alive.

She was born premature, less than two pounds, in 1920.  She had a twin that passed right away and the doctor's told her family to hold off on a funeral because this baby would die soon too.  Her father said "Well, she's alive now and we've got to do something for her" but back then nothing was done.  From some quick research I did after this piqued my interest, I read that her father had seen the "incubator babies" on display at Coney Island while he had been on his honeymoon.  He thought of them and decided that is where he would bring his daughter to find help.  The only help available at the time!   He gathered her tiny body into a warm towel and took a cab to Coney Island.  Dr. Couney obviously saved her life as the baby the doctor's said would die from being born too early did not pass away until she was 96 years old.

I gathered a couple stories with sources at the top of them that I read personally when looking for more information about this topic.

Here is a short blurb about one of the "incubator babies" to start - I've only used parts of it but you can read the whole article from the AP source listed:


MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — Lucille Conlin Horn weighed barely 2 pounds when she was born, a perilous size for any infant, especially in 1920. Doctors told her parents to hold off on a funeral for her twin sister who had died at birth, expecting she too would soon be gone.

But her life spanned nearly a century after her parents put their faith in a sideshow doctor at Coney Island who put babies on display in incubators to fund his research to keep them alive.

Horn was among thousands of premature babies who were treated in the early 20th century by Dr. Martin Couney. He was a pioneer in the use of incubators who sought acceptance for the technology by showing it off on carnival midways, fairs and other public venues. He never accepted money from the tiny babies' parents but instead charged oglers admission to see the babies struggling for life.

Horn and her twin were born prematurely. She said in 2015 that when her sister died, doctors told her father to hold off on a funeral because she wouldn't survive the day.

"He said, 'Well, that's impossible. She's alive now. We have to do something for her,'" Horn said. "My father wrapped me in a towel and took me in a cab to the incubator. I went to Dr. Couney. I stayed with him quite a few days, almost five months."
Couney, who died in 1950 and is viewed today as a pioneer in neonatology, estimated that he successfully kept alive about 7,500 of the 8,500 children who were taken to his "baby farm" at the Coney Island boardwalk. They remained there until the early 1940s, when incubators became widely used in hospitals.

He also put infants on display at the World's Fair and other public venues during his career. There's no estimate on how many still are alive today.

As the babies 'graduated' and had gained enough weight and grown big enough to go 'home' they received a graduation diploma.


A "Graduation Diploma" for a premie cared for at the Baby Incubaators Exhibit at the New York World's Fair, 1939-1940, signed by Dr. Martin Couney and his head nurse Louise Recht.

The man behind the saving of the babies....  

Photograph of Martin Couney from the New York Worlds Fair, 1939.


Martin A. Couney was educated in Breslau and Berlin, he received a medical degree in Leipzig, and in the 1890s he went to study under the tutelage of Pierre Constant Budin of Paris.

Budin had been a pupil of E. S. Tarnier, a leading Parisian obstetrician who pioneered in efforts to improve the survival of prematurely born infants. The early attempts begin following the immense loss of life in France from military action and months of famine during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). In 1878, Tarnier visited an exhibition, the Jardin d'Acclimation, and came across a warming chamber for the rearing of poultry, devised by M. Odile Martin of the Paris Zoo. He asked the zoo keeper to build a similar box, sufficiently ventilated and large enough to hold one or two premature infants. This was done and the first warm-air incubators were used at the Paris Maternité Hospital in 1880. In a report presented to the Academy of Medicine of France in 1895, the following note appeared:
The minute and delicate care which these weakly [prematurely born] infants require, especially in winter, to protect them from the cold is so great that till now most of them have died ... since Doctor Tarnier introduced ... the ingenious contrivance, called a "couveuse", a large number of these infants have been saved.
In 1888, Pierre Budin began to publish articles describing his experience at the Maternité Hospital with the care of premature infants. Through the influence of Madame Henry, formerly chief midwife at this hospital, he established a special department for "weaklings" at the end of 1893. Budin also was appointed to the Clinique Tarnier in 1898 and, under his tutelage, these two hospitals in Paris became the first centers in the world for specialized studied of premature infant care. In ten lectures to his students, published in 1900 (as the book titled Le Nourisson), Budin enunciated three basic problems in care of the prematurely born:
  1. Their temperature and their chilling.
  2. Their feeding.
  3. The diseases to which they are prone.
The Tarnier incubator (improved with a "Reynard regulator," a monitoring device which activated an electric bell to warn against overwarming) was used by Budin to solve the thermal problem. He advocated human milk feedings to solve the second problem by nursing at the breast of the mother or wet nurses when possible. If the infant was unable to suckle, milk was hand-expressed in a trickle into the mouth, fed by spoon into the mouth (or into the nose by means of a special "nasal spoon"), or introduced directly into the stomach by intermittent gavage. Budin began the practice of weighing the infant before and after feeding to calculate the amount of milk taken in 24 hours by infants of different birth size. From this, he concluded that a premature infant should "... take, in general, a quantity of milk equal to or a little more than one-fifth of its body weight" each day.
Proneness to infection was the risk stressed in the third of Budin's considerations. Following a severe epidemic of respiratory infections among premature infants at the Maternité hospital in 1896, Budin became convinced of the importance of special precautions. In the same year, he proposed the following plan for a special unit:
  1. Grouping together the healthy premature infants;
  2. Isolating the sick and suspect infants;
  3. Separating the web nurses' babies from contact with the premature infants;
  4. Establishing a milk room where "sterilized" milk could be heated;
  5. Keeping the bottles of sterilized milk cool in summer in an ice chamber;
  6. Providing a toilet and dressing room for wet nurses where they were to "...wash their hands and face and don an overall" before ministering to their premature infant charges.
These guidelines for the care of feeding of premature infants were adopted slowly, and with very little modification, throughout the Western world.

The spread of these ideas was spurred on through the curious circumstances which grew out of Budin's request that his young associate, Martin Couney, exhibit the newly-modified Tarnier incubator at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896. Budin armed the young man with a letter of introduction to Professor Czerny, an illustrious obstetrician. Couney hit upon the idea of placing live premature infants in the infant incubators and asked Czerny's help to obtain the babies. Czerny sent him to Empress Augusta Victoria, the protectress of Berlin's Charity Hospital, who agreed readily: the premature infants were considered to have little chance of survival. Couney brought six incubators and an entourage of Budin's nurses to the exposition and named the exhibit "Kinderbrutanstalt." The notion of a "child hatchery" caught the imagination of the Berlin public and soon there were ribald songs about the exhibit in the beer halls and night clubs. Couney's exhibit was located in the amusement section next to the Congo Village and the Tyrolean Yodlers; it was a huge success, always jammed with people. Several batches of infants were reared at the show and, according to Couney, "there were no deaths." During the exhibit, a London promoter by the name of Samuel Schenkein visited Couney and invited him to repeat the show in London the following year at the Victorian Era Exhibition to be held in Earl's Court. Couney agreed.