Weird History
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Premature Babies Used To Be Put On Display At Hospitals Like Sideshows

Updated October 29, 2019 256.1k views10 items

Dr. Martin Couney's Coney Island baby display was a sideshow attraction that ran from 1903 to 1943. Over the course of those 40 years, Couney and his nurses cared for approximately 8,000 prematurely born infants, saving their lives thanks to a newfangled medical technology – incubators. The incubator babies on Coney Island were displayed for paying visitors, and the funds raised went to their care. Though at first glance it may seem garish – after all, the babies were effectively treated as a "freak show" – this Miracle at Coney Island saved 6,500 babies, one of whom went on to live to be 96 years old. 

  • Dr. Martin Couney Brought Incubators To The US, But Traditional Medical Practices Didn't Want To Use Them

    Dr. Couney discovered incubators while in Europe, and he realized that they could help premature infants in the United States. So, he brought the idea overseas and attempted to implement it in modern hospitals. However, the medical establishment in the early 20th century didn't see the point in using them. Couney was convinced of the incubators' healing powers, and he set up his sideshow attraction with permission from the infants' parents. For just 25 cents a visit, visitors helped pay for the babies' medical care. 

  • Dr. Etienne Stéphane Tarnier Invented Incubators For Infants, But Dr. Pierre Budin Told Couney About Them

    Photo: Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions

    Dr. Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, a French obstetrician, came up with the idea of keeping premature infants in incubators. He was inspired by the warming systems used by farmers to keep chicks warm after they hatched. In 1880, L'Hôpital Paris Maternité in France became the first hospital to use these devices on babies, and, by 1888, Dr. Tarnier was publishing reports on the success he was experiencing with them. However, it was Dr. Pierre Budin, who worked with Couney, who told him about the incubators, with the notion of spreading the idea around the world. They displayed them at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896 to that end.

  • Couney Had Trained Medical Professionals On Staff To Care For The Babies On Display

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Couney ran his exhibit/clinic on Coney Island from 1903-1943, and his displayed infants were well cared for by trained nurses and other medical professionals. He had two wet nurses living in small rooms near his sideshow attraction, as well as standard nurses. He kept two local doctors on staff, even though they didn't live onsite, just in case something went wrong or a baby needed additional care.  

  • At The Time, Coney Island Was Known For Its Sideshow Attractions

    Photo: Zoriah / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Coney Island is an amusement park located outside of New York City. The first sideshow (then called a "freak show") opened there in 1880. These shows remained popular until the middle of the 20th century. Among the acts located there were Zip the Pinhead, a man with microcephaly, and Josephene Corbin, the four-legged woman. People paid to see the sideshow acts, including Couney's premature infants in incubators, who seemed to fit right in with the other human "oddities."