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How Fake Doctor Saved Thousands of Premature Babies by Creating an ‘Infant Freakshow’

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The technology which makes up today’s NICU is all thanks to a man who saved premature babies by caring for them in a publicly displayed incubator. This “fake doctor” went on to save nearly 7,000 lives.


It’s no secret that some of the world’s most innovative inventions and advancements came from the oddest origins. The origin of technology we are familiar with in today’s hospital NICU (The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) is beyond unexpected. The original NICU was founded as carnival entertainment, run by a man posing as a Doctor. The man’s name was Martin Couney, a self-appointment “doctor” who created a public sideshow on the boardwalk on Coney Island featuring premature babies.

Couney was an immigrant from Prussia who emigrated to the states in the late 19th century. Couney spent 40 years committed to saving the lives of premature babies using the newly invented baby incubator. According to Drew Raffel, author of the book outlining his story, Couney is responsible for saving nearly 7,000 lives.

Before his life-changing work, incubator technology was laughed at or dismissed by physicians. Incubators for babies were inspired by zoo incubators used on baby chicks. Stéphane Tarnier, a French obstetrician adapted the idea for baby humans but the world was slow to adopt the technology for many of its first years.

His noble endeavor to allow these babies to fight for their lives under the guise of a sideshow is to thank for today’s dedicated premature infant life-saving technology.

Couney acquired an incubator and established an exhibition on Coney Island in 1903, close to the Luna Park amusement park. Proceeds from visitors (one quarter each) went towards the personal care of the babies.

Despite the posture of the exhibit as for entertainment purposes, the care of the children was of the utmost importance to Couey. The facilities were immaculate with new children being dropped off by anxious parents desperate for someone to help their child when the hospital wouldn’t.

According to NY Post, the children were immediately bathed, rubbed with alcohol, swaddled tight then “placed in an incubator kept at 96 or so degrees, depending on the patient. Every two hours, those who could suckle were carried upstairs on a tiny elevator and fed by breast by wet nurses who lived in the building. The rest [were fed by] a funneled spoon.”

The exhibit claimed a high success rate of survival. While unsubstantiated as there are no secure records they boast an 85% survival rate.

Lucille Horn, one of the premature babies born in 1920 who was nursed to health sat with NPR to discuss her feelings and thoughts about her early days. “It’s strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right…I think it was definitely more of a freak show. Something that they ordinarily did not see.” She lived to be 96-years-old according to History.

After 40 years and groundbreaking success in nursing premature babies, in 1943 hospitals began to adopt Couney’s techniques and incubator technology. Couney shut down his sideshow. His noble endeavor to allow these babies to fight for their lives under the guise of a sideshow is to thank for today’s dedicated premature infant life-saving technology.