Back when Coney Island boasted a bizarre and largely inhumane menagerie, including the likes of a "midget village" and a displaced tribe from the Phillipines, Martin Couney's Infant Incubator facility resided on the boardwalk from 1903 to 1943. Visitors could pay a quarter to enter the building to view premature babies resting in guard-rail-protected incubators. While this all might sound a bit devilish, Couney's love for the infants and top-notch equipment helped save (as he claims) nearly 6,500 lives. At a time when the United States' medical community largely believed that premature babies were "genetically inferior 'weaklings' whose fate was a matter for God," Couney shelled out for the latest incubator models from France — the U.S. was decades behind in infant care. Very expensive to operate, it was the public's money that covered the cost, saving the parents from ever dishing out a dime. Couney did his best to make his facility look and run as close to a hospital as possible. He spread his message by taking his "show" to World's Fairs and Expositions across America and Europe. BBC reports:
Couney saw his job as not only to save the lives of the premature babies, but also to advocate on their behalf. He gave lectures reciting the names of famous men who had been born prematurely and gone on to achieve great things, such as Mark Twain, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Charles Darwin, and Sir Isaac Newton.
Couney's techniques were advanced for the time, including his emphasis on breast milk and his strictness about hygiene. But some of his methods were unconventional. Most hospital doctors believed that contact with premature babies should be kept to a minimum to reduce the risk of infection. But Couney encouraged his nurses to take the babies out of the incubators to hug and kiss them, believing they responded to affection.
The incubator facility was always scrubbed spotlessly clean. Couney employed a cook to prepare nutritious meals for his wet nurses. If any were discovered smoking, drinking alcohol or snacking on a hot dog, he would fire them immediately.
Head over to BBC to read the full article.
Feature image via Library of Congress