Episode 49 - Coney Island Babies

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Prematurely born babies often have underdeveloped lungs, immune systems, and digestive tracts along with missing the necessary layer of fat that keeps them warm. Before modern medicine, parents of premature babies had to get creative to keep their tiny babies warm and their methods ranged from putting them in jars full of feathers, to wrapping them up in sheepskin, to putting them in baskets that were then filled with hot water bottles or warmed bricks, or the classic go-to of wrapping them up in blankets and putting them in front of the fire. Despite parents’ best efforts, the survival rate of these infants were very low.

In 1878, Dr. Etienne Tarnier was visiting a Paris Zoo and was inspired when he saw incubators being used to hatch chicken eggs. Dr. Tarnier hired an engineer who specialized in creating chicken hatchery incubators build him a two-tiered device in which a water reservoir could be heated by an outside boiler. When the water reservoir was heated, it would warm up several babies laying in the cot right above it. The cot holding the babies was enclosed but ventilated using simple convection that worked by air entering at the base and the circulating upward around the infant and then escaped out of the top. The boiler worked almost too well and the gas flow at Dr. Tarnier’s hospital was very uneven, so if the nurses didn’t keep constant checks on the incubator and infants, the babies could easily become overheated. The nurses eventually stopped refilling the reservoir with water and just filled it with hot-water bottles instead and started only keeping one baby in each cot at a time. Dr. Tarnier claimed that this cut premature infant mortality rates in half, however many others in the medical community didn’t believe the statistics Dr. Tarnier was claiming.

Dr. Tarnier’s successor, Dr. Pierre Budin picked up where Dr. Tarnier left off and kept working on perfecting the incubator and publishing reports that detailed the successes of incubators. His reports were often met with the same push back that Dr. Tarnier received, so Dr. Budin knew that he just needed others to see the incubators in action so that they could believe. In 1896, Dr. Budin told his assistant, Dr. Martin Cohen to take several of the incubators to the Berlin Industrial Exposition and to fill them with premature babies so that they would grab the attention of people walking by. Cohen approached German Empress Augusta Victoria, who was the protectress of Berlin’s Charity Hospital, if he could take the hospital’s premature babies and place them in the incubators. Because they chances of these babies survival was so low, she agreed.

The Berlin Industrial Exposition was a huge showcase of the innovation coming out of Germany and was divided up into 23 different sections ranging from engineering, to photography, to medicine and also included a circus and carnivals rides. Instead of a technology or medicine section, Cohen’s incubator facility was placed in the amusement section of the Expo in between the Congo “village” and the Tyrolean yodelers. By the time of the expo, these incubators were made up of a water boiler to supplied hot water into a pipe that ran into a glass case and underneath a mesh that the babies slept on and there was a thermostat that regulated the temperature inside of the glass case. Another pipe carried air into the glass case after being filtered through wool that had been dipped in antiseptic and then dry wool. On top of the glass case was a chimney with a fan that blew the exhausted air out of the incubator.

Cohen or one of his assistant’s was always working to check on the babies and explain the incubator to visitors. The incubators were a hit. Songs about the incubators were sung in German beer halls and nightclubs and newspapers all over the world began to run articles about them. Around 40,000 people visited the incubator exhibit every day during the six months that it was open. Cohen would get the premature babies to a healthy weight of six pounds or more and then discharge them back to their families which would allow for a new premature baby to take it’s place in the incubator. At the end of the expo, Cohen claimed that every single premature baby had survived. There are no records to back that up, but there are no records of anyone seeing a baby die so who knows.

With all of their success, Cohen and a New York entrepreneur worked together to bring the incubator exhibit to the Victorian Era Exhibition in London. A few weeks before the exhibit, Cohen found himself with no babies to place in the incubators. None of the British doctors would give their premature infant patients up to be displayed at an exhibit. So instead, Cohen packed three wicker baskets with babies from Paris and began the journey towards London. Cohen had a well-known obstetric nurse named Louise Recht join him to help care for the babies on the journey. The incubator exhibit was once again an instant hit.

Cohen would notice that the exhibit would have return visitors that would check in on their favorite baby and watch them grow and gain weight. It was here in London that Cohen began to go by Martin Coney, though no one knows why. Some think he was trying to just drop his Jewish name. After London, Coney took six of his incubators and began to make his way to America. Coney’s first exhibit in the United States was at the Omaha World’s Fair in 1898. Just like in Britain, many of America’s doctors distrusted the incubators and felt that a baby’s best chances of survival was to be cared for by it’s mother, not a metal and glass box. When word got out about the incubators, desperate parents began to bring their tiny newborns to Coney hoping for a chance for their baby.

The babies were fed breast milk every two to three hours. The babies that were too small and weak to suckle were given milk through a tube inserted into their throat or a funnel-shaped spoon that was put into their nose. A representative from the Krug Cabinet beer company asked if he could supply Coney’s wet nurses with a drink that they thought would increase milk supply and Coney allowed it. After the wet nurses trying it, Coney gave the beer his recommendation which was huge because he was becoming increasingly popular in America. Coney decided that he would like to stay in America and became a United States citizen on November 2, 1898.

Many hospitals around the country began to acquire their own incubators, however funding for the care of premature babies was low and many of these hospitals closed their premature baby stations shortly after opening. However, Coney continued to grow in popularity and was able to purchase 18 state-of-the-art incubators to continue travelling the country with including the 1901 Pan-American Exposition where President McKinley was shot.

On May 16, 1903 Luna Park was opened on Coney Island and was an instant success. The park had all sorts of rides and attractions to wow visitors. The owner of Luna Park Fred Thompson knew he needed one of the biggest attractions in the country at his park, the incubator babies. Thompson offered Coney a prime spot in the park on the main thoroughfare and Coney took him up on the offer. The incubators drew in large crowds instantly. Visitors were charged 25 cents to come inside the incubator facility to look upon the tiny babies in steel and glass incubators while nurses in white uniforms walked around tending to them.

Lecturers would explain the needs of premature babies, the treatment plan at Coney’s facility, and the technology of the incubators. Visitors could also see into the back room where the babies were fed and changed through large glass window. Local physicians began to send their premature babies to Coney Island to be placed in an incubator and desperate parents began to bring their babies in as well. Each baby cost around $15 a day (about $450 today) to care for the babies. Coney never charge any of the parent’s that brought their babies to him. Coney also stated in interviews that babies of any race or social class were welcome at his facility at a time when segregation was extremely prevalent in America.

On August 17, 1903 the New York Times ran an article accusing Coney of running a “baby farm” that exploited sick children for his own profits and the president of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children called on the New York police and the mayor to shut down Coney’s facility immediately. The matter was brought in front of a court where Coney testified that he was running a serious medical facility that just happened to be at an amusement park. Of the 19 babies that he had taken care of at Luna Park, only one had died and it was in terrible condition when it had arrived. The court appointed a committee to investigate the facility and incubators. The committee decided to not shut down Coney’s facility citing that it was clear that babies were being well taken care of and could find no fault with Coney or his staff.

That September, Couney married one of his nurses, Annabelle Segner, at City Hall in Manhattan. When Coney Island closed for the season, Coney arranged to have the babies in his care transferred to local hospitals that he also loaned some of incubators to. In 1904, another amusement park named Dreamland opened right next to Luna Park. Coney opened his second incubator facility in Dreamland and then opened a third incubator facility in Atlantic City. Coney was doing very well for himself and expanding his incubator empire. On January 29, 1907 Annabelle went into labor and gave birth to their six-weeks premature baby girl. Because it was winter and the parks were closed, all of Coney’s incubators were in either hospitals on loan or in storage. Coney called his friend to bring one of his incubators from storage to his home where he quickly placed his new baby. Coney and Annabelle named their daughter Hildegarde Frances and she spent the first three months of her life in the incubator in their home until she was strong enough to be out of it.

With their now healthy baby girl, things were going good for the Coney’s again until May 27, 1911 when a fire broke out at Dreamland. At the time of the fire, there was six babies in incubators at Dreamland. The doctor and nurse working in the incubator facility that night saw the fire and quickly grabbed the infants out of their incubators and ran outside. They were able to then get the babies into incubators at Luna Park and all six babies survived. Dreamland was completely wiped out by the fire and journalists quickly began to write articles that would go out in the morning newspapers. Without verifying their facts, the New York Times published a report that all six babies had been killed by the fire. After learning about the babies surviving, they printed a retraction the next day but the damage had already been done.

Again, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children asked that the incubator facilities to be shut down and a ban placed on exhibiting infants in incubators in places of amusement. After finding out that the babies had survived, the society then said it was “mere chance” that the babies survived and that the fire could’ve easily been started in “the flimsy building in which the incubators were located.” Couney was able come back though and began travelling the states again with his exhibition and keep his facilities at Luna Park and Atlantic City open.

20 years after the fire, Couney was still running his incubator facilities and in 1933 he planned on creating the larges infant-incubator facility in the nation at the Chicago Century of Progress International Exposition. The exhibit cost $75,000 to build (around $1.4 million today) and had a frontage painted red, white, and blue that was over 100 feet long. The exhibit could hold up to 25 babies at one time and had an outdoor nursery in addition to it’s indoor nursery that would allow the babies to get sunshine and fresh air when they were strong enough. The exhibit was open for two years and in 1934, Hildegarde went to Chicago after finishing her nurse training to help her father in the family business.

In 1936, Couney’s wife Annabelle died. After her death, Couney began to reach out to his extended family in Europe. He was becoming worried about the political situation in Europe, especially Hitler and Germany. He wrote his niece and her husband telling them to leave Germany at once and to come to New York. He had enclosed tickets for a steamship and told them to leave all their belongings. Couney brought more friends and family from Germany to America the following year and it is believed that Couney arranged the transportation and legal fees of at least 15 people to come from Germany to New York and helped them get jobs when they arrived.

When it was announced that there would be a world fair in New York in 1939, Couney knew that his infant incubators needed to be a part of it. Couney was now in his late 60’s and since he figured it would more than likely would be his last exhibit, he went all out. He hired an architecture firm out of Chicago to design a u-shaped modern building that included a spacious incubator room, nursery, feeding and changing room, living quarters for himself and his staff, a large kitchen, and a nursery garden. Couney hired a large staff and then mortgaged his family home to pay for it all. The building was painted pink and blue and had a large plaque of a chubby baby that was hung over the entrance. Lullabies played through a loudspeaker system while visitors came in from 9 am to 2 am. There was an incubator ambulance parked outside that would collect premature babies when a call came in.

Nurse Recht was still working with Couney and demonstrated to visitors the feeding techniques used at the exhibit. Several of their past patients that were now adults came to visit and give their thanks for saving their lives.

That same year Cornell University’s New York Hospital opened up a training and research center focused on premature infants that was equipped with incubators. It was hailed as “the first of it’s kind on the eastern seaboard.” When one of the parent’s of a preemie at the hospital couldn’t afford the bill, Couney sent his ambulance to get the baby and bring it back to his exhibit where she stayed for two months until being discharged. Couney took in 42 babies in total at the New York World Fair, but he never recuperated all the money he spent on this exhibit. 40 years after holding his first exhibition, infant incubators were no longer a novelty.

Couney permanently closed his facilities at Luna Park and Atlantic City in 1943 and retired at the age of 73. He died seven years later on March 1, 1950. Several people showed up at his funeral including many former incubator babies and their parents. Over his whole career, Couney claimed to have saved the lives of over 6,500 babies.

It was later discovered that Couney had never received a medical degree and even his work with Pierre Budin is in question. Nevertheless, Martin Couney saved thousands of babies lives and inspired the world to look at premature babies as lives worth saving.


“Miracle at Coney Island: How A Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine” by Claire Prentice

“The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How A Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies” by Dawn Raffel

“Coney Island’s Incubator Babies” by Rebecca Rego Barry

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