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By Pam Teel

Did you know a Coney Island sideshow actually was instrumental in saving thousands of premature babies’ lives? Coney Island, in the early 1900’s, featured all kinds of sideshows like the bearded ladies, the sword swallower, the world’s tallest man, and various other freak shows. Amongst these shows was an exhibit of tiny premature human babies lined up in glass incubators. The charge was 25 cents to get in to see them.

The brainchild of this particular exhibit was Dr. Martin Couney. He created and ran two incubator babies exhibits from 1903 to the early 1940’s. Dr. Couney was one of the greatest champions of this life saving technology and he is credited for saving thousands of tiny lives of premature babies.

The actual first doctor to use an incubator for preemies was a French obstetrician name Stephan Tarnier. After seeing an incubator warming baby chicks at a Paris zoo, he wondered if the same could apply to the preemie babies, who were most likely to die of hypothermia in the hospitals. Though these incubators were simple and not yet fully developed, the good doctor strived to tell other doctors that incubators could be the difference between the life and the death of a child. After his death, a second generation of doctors refined the incubators adding ventilation and thermostats. They spread the word about them in Europe through various expositions and fairs.

French born Couney first saw one of the premie incubators in Europe and got the idea to bring the new technology to America. Couney was born Michael Cohn and was a German-Jewish immigrant. He was a pioneer in neonatology. People called him Dr. Couney though it has been questioned on whether he ever finished his college work to actually become a physician. He was best known for helping parents with premature babies by placing them in he many neonatal incubators he purchased. The incubators were not in the hospitals at that time. Couney came up with an idea to make money to take care of the preemies by placing them in a sideshow. The money that he charged was used to care for the babies so the parents wouldn’t have to pay.

When the rate of success of Couney’s preemies, compared to the local hospitals, became known, parents would take their premature babies to Couney to be put in the incubator. His own premature daughter spent a few months in one. With the money he made from the sideshow, Couney also had around the clock care for the babies. Doctors and nurses attended to them 24/7.

Couney had maintained a better standard of technological care then they had at that time in the hospitals. Couney’s higher purpose was to show the marvelous new technology and how it could save the lives of thousands of fragile young children. He prodded the reluctant establishment to embrace the new technology. It wasn’t until after his death in 1950 that incubators started to be common in hospitals.

Couney’s sideshows saved over 7,000 preemies. Later in life, many of those babies that were saved went back to meet him and became good friends of the doctor.

Dr.Couney holding one of the thousands of babies he saved.