“All the World Loves a Baby”
Coney Island is more than just a world-famous amusement area in Brooklyn, New York. It has served as a metaphor for various aspects of society and life. Over the years, Coney has been known by nicknames from “America’s Playground” to “Sodom by the Sea.” For some, it is the symbol of the best of America’s democratic nature, welcoming all regardless of race, social class, gender, or ethnicity, while for others it has been a site of blighted dreams, representing the excesses of capitalism, hedonism and urban decay.
Close to a century ago, New York’s Coney Island was famed for its sideshows. Loud-lettered signs crowded the island’s attractions, crowing over tattooed ladies, sword swallowers—and even an exhibition of tiny babies.
The babies were premature infants kept alive in incubators pioneered by Dr. Martin Couney. The medical establishment had rejected his incubators, but Dr. Couney didn’t give up on his aims. For 40-some years, starting in 1896, he funded his work by displaying the babies and charging 25 cents to see the show. In return, parents didn’t have to pay for Dr. Couney’s incubators, and many children survived who never would have had a chance otherwise.
For years doctors in the US made little attempt to save the lives of premature babies, but there was one place distressed parents could turn for help – a sideshow on Coney Island. Here one man saved thousands of lives, and eventually changed the course of American medical science.
Lucille Horn was one of them. Born in 1920, she ended up in an incubator on Coney Island.
“My father said I was so tiny, he could hold me in his hand,” she said. She’d been born a twin, but her twin died at birth. And the hospital staff told her father that there wasn’t a chance she’d live. “It was just: You die because you didn’t belong in the world,” Horn says.
But her father refused to accept that answer. He grabbed a blanket to wrap her in, hailed a taxicab, and took her to Coney Island—and to Dr. Couney’s infant exhibit.
Horn was asked: “How do you feel knowing that people paid to see you?”
“It’s strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right,” Horn says. “I think it was definitely more of a freak show. Something that they ordinarily did not see.”
Horn’s healing was on display for paying customers for quite a while. It was only after six months that she finally left the incubator.
Years later, Horn decided to return to see the babies—this time as a visitor. When she stopped in, Dr. Couney happened to be there, and she took the opportunity to introduce herself.
“And there was a man standing in front of one of the incubators, looking at his baby,” Horn says. “And Dr. Couney went over to him, and he tapped him on the shoulder.
“‘Look at this young lady,’ Dr. Couney told the man. ‘She’s one of our babies. And that’s how your baby’s gonna grow up.’”
“There weren’t many doctors then who would have done anything for me,” Horn says. “Ninety-six years later, here I am, all in one piece. And I’m thankful to be here.”
In the early years of the 20th Century, visitors to Coney Island could see some extraordinary attractions. A tribe transported from the Philippines, “midget villages”, a re-enactment of the Boer War by 1,000 soldiers including veterans from both sides, and death-defying roller coaster rides. But for 40 years, from 1903 to 1943, America’s premier amusement park was also home to a genuine life-and-death struggle, played out beside the surf.
Martin Couney’s Infant Incubator facility was one of Coney Island’s most popular exhibits. “All the World Loves a Baby” read a sign above the entrance. Inside, premature babies fought for their lives, tended by a team of dedicated medical staff. To see the babies, you paid 25 cents. A guard-rail prevented visitors getting too close to the tiny figures encased in incubators.
Why were premature babies, who would now be cared for in a neonatal ward, displayed as entertainment?
The man who ran the exhibit was Martin Couney, dubbed “the incubator doctor” – and although he practiced in the sideshows, his operation was cutting-edge.
Couney employed a team of nurses and wet nurses who lived onsite, along with two local physicians.
In America, many doctors at the time held the view that premature babies were genetically inferior “weaklings” whose fate was a matter for God. Without intervention, the vast majority of infants born prematurely were destined to die.
Couney was an unlikely medical pioneer. He wasn’t a professor at a great university or a surgeon at a teaching hospital. He was a German-Jewish immigrant, shunned by the medical establishment, and condemned by many as a self-publicist and charlatan.
But to the parents of the children he saved, and to the millions of people who flocked to see his show, he was a miracle-worker.
The incubators Couney used were the latest models, imported directly from Europe – France was then the world leader in premature infant care with the US lagging several decades behind.
Each incubator was more than 5ft (1.5m) tall, made of steel and glass, and stood on legs. A water boiler on the outside supplied hot water to a pipe running underneath a bed of fine mesh on which the baby slept, while a thermostat regulated the temperature. Another pipe carried fresh air from outside the building into the incubator, first passing through absorbent wool suspended in antiseptic or medicated water, then through dry wool, to filter out impurities. On top, a chimney-like device with a revolving fan blew the exhausted air upwards and out of the incubators.
Caring for premature babies was expensive. In 1903, it cost about $15 a day ($405 today) to care for each baby in Couney’s facility.
But Couney did not charge the parents a penny for their medical care – the public paid. They came in such numbers that Couney easily covered his operating costs, paid his staff a good wage and had enough left over to begin planning more exhibits. In time, these made Couney a wealthy man.
Couney saw his job as not only to save the lives of the premature babies, but also to advocate on their behalf. He gave lectures reciting the names of famous men who had been born prematurely and gone on to achieve great things, such as Mark Twain, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin, and Sir Isaac Newton.
He maintained his facility for 40 years at Coney Island, and set up a similar one at Atlantic City in 1905, which he also ran until 1943. Over the years he took his show to other amusement parks, and to World’s Fairs and Expositions across America.
Although he made his name and his fortune in America, it was in Europe that Couney got his first taste of life as a showman. In 1897 he exhibited incubators at the Victorian Era Exhibition in Earls Court and they were a huge hit. Some 3,600 people visited the show on opening day alone, and the British medical journal, The Lancet, gave it a glowing write-up.
The following year, Couney made his American debut at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. Sensing the huge opportunities for someone like him to exhibit in America, where there was always a fair or an expo taking place somewhere, Couney immigrated.
From 1903, Coney Island was his main base but he travelled around the country as work demanded.
Couney’s techniques were advanced for the time, including his emphasis on breast milk and his strictness about hygiene. But some of his methods were unconventional. Most hospital doctors believed that contact with premature babies should be kept to a minimum to reduce the risk of infection. But Couney encouraged his nurses to take the babies out of the incubators to hug and kiss them, believing they responded to affection.
Eager to distance himself from Coney Island’s more freakish elements, Couney stressed that his facility was a miniature hospital, not a sideshow attraction. The nurses wore starched white uniforms. He and the doctors wore suits topped with physician’s white coats.
The incubator facility was always scrubbed spotlessly clean. Couney employed a cook to prepare nutritious meals for his wet nurses.
Yet Couney was not averse to adopting a few showman’s tactics himself. He instructed the nurses to dress the babies in clothes several sizes too large to emphasize how small they were. A big bow tied around the middle of their swaddling clothes further added to the effect.
Despite his life-saving work, children’s charities, physicians and health officials accused the incubator doctor of exploiting the babies and endangering their lives by putting them on show. There were regular attempts to shut him down.
But as time passed, Couney’s track record of saving lives, and his evident sincerity, began to attract supporters from the world of mainstream medicine. In 1914, while exhibiting in Chicago, Couney met a local paediatrician, Julius Hess, who would go on to become known as the father of American neonatology. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and an important professional relationship. The two men ran an infant incubator facility together at the 1933/34 Chicago World’s Fair.
Some physicians began sending babies to Couney, a tacit acknowledgement at last of the quality of care the babies received in his facility.
In a career spanning nearly half a century he claimed to have saved nearly 6,500 babies with a success rate of 85%.
Hospitals in the US were slow to establish their own dedicated facilities for premature babies, though. The first on the Eastern seaboard arrived in New York in 1939, 36 years after Couney brought his show to Coney Island.
In an article reflecting on Couney’s long career in the New Yorker in 1939, the legendary journalist A J Liebling noted: “There are not enough doctors and nurses experienced in this field to go around. Care of prematures as private patients is hideously expensive… six dollars a day for mother’s milk… rental of an incubator and hospital room, oxygen, several visits a day by a physician, and fifteen dollars a day for three shifts of nurses.”
The best medical minds in New York couldn’t come up with a workable model to save these vulnerable babies. Yet, 40 years earlier, a young immigrant from Europe with little in the way of experience had done just that.
Couney emigrated to America in 1903 and settled in Coney Island. He exhibited there every summer for the next 40 years. He married an Irish nurse (Annabelle May) who was an expert in premature infant care. His daughter, Hildegarde, was born prematurely and she spent the first three months of her life in an exhibit incubator. (As noted in the New York Times obituary, she became a nurse and worked with her father.) Madame Louise Recht, the Budin-trained nurse, who was with Couney from the very outset of his “show” career, remained as the central figure on his staff. The incubator-show became a fixture of the amusement area. Della Robbia bambino symbols (later adopted as the insignia of the American Academy of Pediatrics) were used liberally in the decor. The barkers were interesting “characters” (their spiel ended with the cry, “Don’t pass the babies by!”). George Stewart later became a career diplomat who, at one time, was the American consul in Venice, Italy; “Van” earned his living as a department store Santa Claus in the Christmas season. An actor named Archibald Leach worked as a barker at the Luna Park exhibit while waiting for a part in an upcoming Broadway musical. Following this stint he went on to become a famous movie idol under the name given to him by Paramount Pictures — Cary Grant.
Though there were primitive forerunners, the introduction of the closed incubator for hospital use is generally credited to Dr. Etíenne Stéphane Tarnier (1828-1897), who was attracted by the bird incubator at the Paris zoo and asked its director to make one for premature babies; he put it into the nursery of a Paris maternity hospital in 1881. One of his students, Dr. Pierre C. Boudin, a renowned pediatrician, in turn trained a German-born doctor named Martin A. Couney.
Dr. Boudin asked his young student, Dr. Couney, to show the improved Tarnier incubator at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896. According to a 1979 article in Pediatrics magazine by Dr. William A. Silverman, Dr. Couney hit on the idea of placing live premature infants in the incubator at the exposition, and enlisted the help of Empress Augusta Victoria to obtain six babies considered to have little chance of survival. It stood in the amusement area next to the Congo Village and the Tyrolean Yodelers, and was the butt of ribald jokes about a “baby hatchery,” but according to Dr. Couney, all the babies survived. Realizing that public displays spread publicity about the advantages of incubators, he showed babies similarly at major fairs in London in 1897, Omaha in 1898 and Buffalo (above) in 1901.
Dr. Couney emigrated to the United States, settled in Coney Island, set up a live incubator display there in Luna Park in 1903 and had an exhibit on the Boardwalk every summer for the next 40 years. (He also displayed infants at the exposition in Chicago in 1933 and the New York World’s Fair in 1939.) At Coney Island, a sign proclaimed, “All the World Loves a Baby,” and barkers yelled, “Don’t pass the babies by.”
Disapproved of by some in the medical establishment as a tasteless showman, Dr. Couney was credited with saving thousands of children and was offered infants by doctors and hospitals. He told interviewers that he would give up his carnival display when there were decent medical alternatives. “Even today,” A. J. Liebling wrote in 1939 in an article about Dr. Couney, “it is difficult to get adequate care for premature infants in a clinic. Few New York hospitals have set up special departments for their benefit.” Babies under Dr. Couney’s care, most of them weighing less than three pounds, were scrupulously monitored; Mr. Leibling noted that the doctor employed numerous wet nurses, who supplied the milk, as well as trained nurses in eight-hour shifts. Any wet nurse caught eating a hot dog or having an orange drink was fired. While the 25-cent admission fee kept Dr. Couney comfortable, he never took a cent from the babies’ parents.
Dr. Julius H. Hess of Chicago, a leading American expert on prematurity, greatly respected Dr. Couney, according to Dr. Silverman. In 1937, Dr. Couney was honored by New York’s Medical Society. Contemporary news accounts said Dr. Couney had incubated more than 8,000 babies and saved at least 6,500 of them. When specialized hospital care for premature babies increased in the 1940s, Dr. Couney closed his show. He died in 1950.
Couney’s obituary appeared in the New York Times, March 2, 1950:
Martin A. Couney, Incubator Doctor
Dr. Martin A. Couney, a specialist in the care of prematurely born infants, who had shown such babies to the public for an admission price at fairs and other exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe for more than fifty years, died last night at his howme, 3728 Surf Ave, Sea Gate, Coney Island. He was 80 years old. “The Incubator Doctor,” as Dr. Couney was informally known, was born in Germany, studied medicine in Breslau, Berlin and Leipzig, receiving an M.D., and later in Paris under Dr. Pierre C. Budin, noted pediatrician, who developed a method of saving the prematurely born.
At the Berlin Exposition of 1896, Dr. Couney operated an exhibit of prematurely born babies to show the Budin technique. The exhibit was a financial success, as was a second one at Earl’s Court in London. In 1898 Dr. Couney paid his first visit to the United States and had an exhibit at the Omaha Trans-Mississipi Exposition. He returned to Paris for the exposition of 1900, but was back in this country for the Buffalo Exposition the next year, and then decided to remain here for good.
For years he had shows at both Dreamland and Luna Park, and the night Dreamland was destroyed by fire the babies were saved by a quick transfer to the Luna Park incubators, some of the lodgers doubling up.
Dr. Couney had one of his Baby Incubators attractions at the New York World’s Fair.
He leaves a daughter, Hildegarde Couney, long associated with her father’s affairs. His wife, Annabelle May Couney, died in 1936.
THE PEOPLE’S PLAYGROUND: A POTTED HISTORY OF CONEY ISLAND
Coney entered its heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, with the construction of spectacular amusement parks. The era began with the opening of Sea Lion Park, the first enclosed park where an admission fee was charged on entrance, in 1895. It lasted only until 1902, but served as the inspiration for entrepreneur and showman George C. Tilyou to create his more elaborate Steeplechase Park.
1820s: A few colonial aristocrats visited Gravesend’s beach in the earlier 18th century but it was the building of a private toll road causeway across the creek separating the island from the mainland in the 1820s made it more accessible (and no longer truly an island).
Late 1800s: Post Civil War, a spate of hotels sprang up along the beach, along with restaurants and facilities for renting bathing costumes. In 1868 it was listed as the best beach on the Atlantic coast.
1870: Sodom by the Sea: At the beginning of about 1870 the so-called “Gut” section of Coney’s West End became a center for horse racing, boxing, gambling, drinking, and prostitution. A vast amusement zone also grew up there.
1884: The first roller coaster built in the United States, LaMarcus Thompson’s Switchback Gravity Railway, was opened at Coney Island in 1884
1880s: The movement, beginning in the 1880s, to grant workers a “half-holiday” on Saturdays led to increased leisure time, which benefited Coney’s entertainment industry
Segregation: Despite Coney’s democratic spirit, which brought together people of various classes. African Americans had to use segregated bath houses and were discouraged from occupying certain sections of the beach. Jews were also not welcome at first in some establishments.
Heydey: Coney entered its heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, with the construction of spectacular amusement parks
George C. Tilyou‘s Steeplechase Park: The signature ride was the Steeplechase, where participants rode mechanical horses along a metal track. Other attractions included a Ferris wheel, a boat ride along the Grand Canals of Venice
Bright lights: The spectacular Luna Park opened on May 16, 1903. Dubbed the “Electric Eden,” Luna Park was a fantasy land lit by some 250,000 electric lights; in fact, lights from Coney, not the Statue of Liberty or the New York skyline, were the first thing those arriving in New York harbor could see.
Big Three: The last of the “big three” amusement parks in Coney Island was Dreamland.
Decline: Although Coney Island continued to be a major amusement area, and its beach often attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors a day through at least the 1950s, it has never regained the glory of its golden years
1980s and 90s: Increased crime and beach pollution did nothing to improve Coney Island’s image but visitors kept coming
Modern day: In 2010, Zamperla company opened a new amusement park called Luna Park – resurrecting the old name, if not the freewheeling weirdness. Now, its main attractions are the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump and the Cyclone
Incubator-Baby Sideshows, from Pediatrics
Postscript to Incubator-Baby Sideshows, from Pediatrics
Martin Couney’s Story Revisited, from Pediatrics
A Patron of the Premies, from The New Yorker
Baby Incubators, from Strand Magazine
Martin Couney’s Obituary, from The New York Times, March 2, 1950.
Martin Couney, from American Heritage Magazine