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Boardwalk Babies

Summary:
Known as ‘America’s Playground’, Brooklyn’s Coney Island was home to the weird and the wonderful throughout the 20th century. A midget city, a wild animal show and a bearded lady were all attractions at New York’s most insalubrious entertainment park. But few will be aware of one man’s sideshow that not only entertained but saved the lives of thousands of premature babies. Shocking as it may seem now, physician Martin Couney, dubbed ‘the incubator doctor’, held a stall that displayed a genuine life and death struggle – and proved to be the one of the Island’s most popular attractions. It also changed the course of American medical science. At the time premature babies were considered genetically inferior, and were simply left to

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Known as ‘America’s Playground’, Brooklyn’s Coney Island was home to the weird and the wonderful throughout the 20th century.

A midget city, a wild animal show and a bearded lady were all attractions at New York’s most insalubrious entertainment park.

But few will be aware of one man’s sideshow that not only entertained but saved the lives of thousands of premature babies.

Shocking as it may seem now, physician Martin Couney, dubbed ‘the incubator doctor’, held a stall that displayed a genuine life and death struggle – and proved to be the one of the Island’s most popular attractions.

It also changed the course of American medical science.

At the time premature babies were considered genetically inferior, and were simply left to fend for themselves and ultimately die.

Couney offered desperate parents a pioneering solution that was as expensive as it was experimental – and came up with the very unusual way of covering the costs.

For 40 years, from 1903 to 1943, the Jewish-German physician held an infant incubator facility at the amusement park dubbed ‘All the World Loves a Baby’.

But behind the gaudy facade, premature babies were fighting for their lives, attended by a team of medical professionals. To see them, punters paid 25 cents.

The public funding – albeit via a crude transaction – paid for the expensive care, which cost about $15 a day in 1903 (the equivalent of $405 today) per incubator.

The incubators themselves were a medical miracle, 40 years ahead of what was being developed in America at that time.

Each incubator was made of steel and glass and stood on legs, about 5ft tall. A water boiler on the outside supplied hot water to a pipe running underneath a bed of mesh, upon which the baby slept.

A thermostat regulated the temperature and another pipe carried fresh air from the outside of the building into the glass box, that first passed through absorbent wool  suspended in antiseptic or medicated water, then through dry wool, to filter out impurities.

While on top, a chimney-like device with a revolving fan blew the exhausted air upwards and out of the incubators. 

Couney, who had been shunned by the medical world as a tasteless showman told interviewers he would give up his carnival display when there were decent medical alternatives.

At the time, American doctors mostly viewed premature babies as ‘genetically inferior’.

This meant that without intervention, the vast majority of babies were likely to die.

Having traveled over from Europe, following several prominent exhibitions, including the 1897 Victorian Era Exhibition in Earls Court, Couney made his name in America.

As well as a facility in Atlanta, he also toured the country giving lectures about his work. He recited the names of notable figures born prematurely who had gone on to do great things.

Among those were Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Napoleon, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain.

Though the stall sat side by side with ‘freak show’ attractions, Couney ran a professional set up.

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