Sideshow Doctor: Birth of American Neonatal Care

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Martin Couney holds up Beth Allen, a premature baby who was on view at the Coney Island attraction. (Beth Allen)

The Man Who Ran a Carnival Attraction That Saved Thousands of Premature Babies Wasn’t a Doctor at All

by Claire Prentice /Smithsonian.com

Nurses in starched white uniforms and doctors in medical coats tended to babies in glass and steel incubators. The infants had been born many weeks premature and well below a healthy birth weight. Stores didn’t make clothes small enough to fit their tiny, skeletal frames so the nurses dressed them in dolls’ clothes and knitted bonnets.

A sign above the entrance read “Living Babies in Incubators” in letters so large they could be read from the other end of the Chicago World’s Fair grounds, which took place over 18 months in 1933 and 1934. The infant incubator exhibit was built at a cost of $75,000 (worth $1.4 million today) and was painted in a patriotic red, white and blue.

The men in charge were leading Chicago pediatrician Dr. Julius Hess and Martin Couney, who was known across America as “the incubator doctor.”

Martin Couney had run infant incubator exhibits, in which premature babies were displayed to the public, for more than three decades, most famously at Coney Island in New York City. He had long been regarded by desperate parents as a savior, one who offered medical help to babies written off as “weaklings” by mainstream medicine.

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