The Doctor Who Rescued 6,500 Prematurely Born Babies

By Michael Van Duisen on Saturday, September 14, 2013
baby
“This doctor says you can use our incubator for free, but you have to put them [twin boy and girl] on display on Coney Island.” —George Johnson, one of the twins put on display

In A Nutshell

Before the widespread adoption of incubators in hospitals, many premature babies died without the support of the womb. Dr. Martin Couney, at his exhibit in Coney Island, had a number of incubators and many parents brought their children to him in order to save their lives. For over 40 years, Dr. Couney ran his incubators and saved at least 6,500 babies, including his own daughter.

The Whole Bushel

In 1903, Dr. Martin Couney opened a special exhibit at Coney Island, utilizing a technology that hospitals had failed to embrace: the incubator. Many premature babies were being born in New York and local doctors had no way to effectively treat them. Bringing over machines which had already been widely accepted in Europe, Dr. Couney convinced parents to bring their children to him by promising them free treatment, provided they allow him to charge people to look at them. Faced with the idea of losing their newborns, many parents agreed and Dr. Couney’s exhibit became hugely popular, drawing thousands of visitors at 10 cents per peek.

Because of its popularity, Dr. Couney opened a second exhibit in the Dreamland area of Coney Island, but it burned up in a fire in 1911, lasting only seven years. (The Luna Park version lasted for 40 years.) In its lifetime, Dr. Couney’s exhibit had more than 8,000 premature babies pass through it, with over 6,500 of them surviving thanks to his efforts. When his exhibit finally closed in 1943, incubators had become widespread in the US and it was no longer needed.

Unfortunately, Dr. Couney was not recognized for efforts during his lifetime, dying broken and shamed in 1950. Most people looked at him as a shameless showman, failing to properly credit him for his innovation and popularization of incubators. (He took his exhibit very seriously, resisting any pressure to turn the children into a sideshow.) Today, Dr. Couney is recognized for the good work he did, saving an untold number of premature babies indirectly, as well as those he directly saved, including his own daughter.

Show Me The Proof

Coney Island’s lifesaving freak show
Coney Island Hall of Fame: Dr. Martin Couney
Coney Island Sideshows