Babies on Exhibit — Come One, Come All! See the Tiny Babies!
Many are still shocked to hear the story of how tens of thousands of people paid to see an exhibit of tiny babies in incubators in Long Island, New York at Coney Island in the early 19th century. But there was a very important reason for this, one that continues to save lives every day.
Incubators, while now standard in any hospital, were once an untested technology. Their developers needed a way to prove their worth and get the word out. So Dr. Martin Arthur Couney did the only thing he could to show the world that this technology was indeed needed and could save many lives. And that is how premature babies were put on display at Coney Island, as the “Baby Incubator Exhibit”.
The attraction resembled a normal hospital ward, with babies, nurses providing specialized care, and the doctor over-looking everything. The only difference was that they were on display as a paid exhibit. His medical staff consisted of five wet-nurses and fifteen highly trained medical technicians including his daughter Hildegarde, a nurse. By 1939, he had treated more than 8,000 babies and saved the lives of over 6,500. Dr. Couney never charged parents a fee for the care he gave their infants. His clinic was financed strictly through entrance fees.
The exhibit on Coney Island was a spectacular, and seemingly successful, affair. Outside of the attraction, carnival barkers, including a very young Cary Grant, pulled people into the exhibit. The sign over the entryway proclaimed, “All the World Loves a Baby.” Any child who was prematurely born in the city would be rushed over to Coney Island to be placed in the exhibit, including Couney’s own daughter, who spent three months there.
Over time, the ‘graduates,’ of the program came back to visit Couney and see the new crop of premature babies. In 1939 towards the end of the attraction’s run, an article in the New Yorker mentioned that a few of the male graduates became doctors themselves. By the time his Luna Park exhibit closed in 1943, incubators were being used in hospitals across the world.