Coney Island

Coney Island once hosted baby incubators in a sideshow

October 1, 2018 By Ranaan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
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Before most hospitals had incubators to treat premature babies, one of the few place “preemies” could receive proper care was at Martin Couney’s incubator sideshow in Coney Island.

Couney is the subject of the new book The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies” by Dawn Raffel. According to Atlas Obscura, Couney, who first displayed incubators at the Berlin Exposition in 1896, settled in the U.S. in 1903 “to run his babies-in-incubators sideshow.”

The entrance fees that Couney collected went toward his operating costs, including round-the-clock care and wet nurses, Atlas Obscura said. Couney defended the sideshow aspects of his Coney Island incubators by telling the New Yorker in 1939, “All my life I have been making propaganda for the proper care of preemies, who in other times were allowed to die.” Indeed, Couney, who may not have been a medical doctor, may have saved the lives of 6,500 babies, Atlas Obscura reported.

By the early 1940s, hospitals were beginning to open facilities to care for premature infants, and Couney’s exhibit closed.

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