When I heard this story on the radio this morning, it seemed so bizarre, I couldn’t get enough. So I found this second story by:
Incubators, while standard in any hospital nowadays, were once untested technology. Their developers needed a way to prove their worth and get the word out. And that is how premature babies were put on display at Coney Island.
When it comes to medicine, people can’t always afford dignity. Certainly they couldn’t in the first few years of the twentieth century, when Dr. Martin A. Couney wanted to pursue his interest in working with premature babies. At the time, the babies had terrifyingly low survival rates, and yet there wasn’t much special equipment developed for them. Incubators had been put forward before, but who had the time and the money to care for them? Couney, knowing that people liked to look at the unusual, liked their heartstrings tugged, and liked to think they were doing good, came up with an idea.
He built an exhibit in which premature babies were displayed at amusement parks and fairs.
He briefly implemented the idea in 1896, in Berlin, where they were referred to as ‘child hatcheries,’ crossed to the United States, where he toured fairs, and then found a more permanent home in the amusement parks in Coney Island.
The Baby Incubator exhibit started in 1903 in Dreamland, the more sedate amusement park on the island. The attraction resembled a normal hospital ward, with babies, nurses providing specialized care, and the doctor looking over everything.
The only difference was that one side of the ward was glass, and all day long people paid their dime (or fifteen cents, as the years wore on and the prices went up) to troop through and look at the babies. The healthier and older babies were put in incubators along an open hallway, with a railing keeping the public back.
This was not a risk-free venture, publicity-wise. A disastrous early model of the exhibit, inspired by Couney’s success but set up under a different doctor in St Louis, did not have a glass partition separating the incubators from the public, and during one summer sickness epidemic, fifty percent of the babies died.