Couney and the carnival babies

Do you know what the meaning of pre-term birth is? A human child birth that occurs before the 37th week of pregnancy is referred to this way. While a full-term pregnancy normally lasts 40 weeks, not all children are born that way. Premature babies – babies born pre-term – often need longer and more intense nursery care. While this is the norm now with Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU), it wasn’t always the case. We have Martin Couney, a pioneer of early neonatal technology, to thank for that.

A little history before we take a look at what Couney did. By the end of the 19th Century, it was pretty clear to doctors that babies born pre-term needed extra care and often had complications. Incubators had been built and the first one to care for an infant was operational in 1888. On September 7 that year, Edith Eleanor McLean became one of the first babies to be placed in an incubator in a hospital in New York. These incubators, however, were seen more as medical curiosities and not much was done in terms of adoption.

First encounter

In that same year, French physician Pierre Budin, who had been wondering why more hospitals weren’t investing in incubators, began experimenting with the technology. Facing financial difficulties in terms of funding, Budin decided to display his incubators at the Berlin’s World Fair in 1896.

It was at this fair that Couney, Budin’s protege, was drawn towards what was to become a lifetime’s obsession. Budin’s display included premature babies acquired on loan from a hospital and Couney immediately realised that it would work. He was certain that the public would pay to see babies in incubators and that he would in turn be able to save the babies’ lives.

Couney travelled with his ideas to the U.S. and put it into practice. He picked the right place to serve as America was severely lagging behind European nations, which had France at the forefront, in neonatal care. He married Annabelle Segner, one of his nurses, in 1903 and his commitment to the cause was furthered when they had a pre-term daughter in 1907. Hildegarde, who was six week premature and weighed just 1.36 kg at birth, later joined her father’s business after training as a nurse.

Couney’s magic at Coney

If we had visited Coney Islands during the turn of the 20th Century, we would have been spoilt for choice. We could have tried out a roller-coaster, witnessed the re-enactment of the Boer War or simply waded in the water while eating an ice cream. Yet, one of the most popular permanent exhibits was Couney’s facility.

With signs so large they could be seen from the other end of the island, Couney’s facility played host to a life-and-death exercise. People, however, were willing to witness this freak show as they paid the 25-cent entrance fee to see the display of premature babies placed in incubators. A guard rail prevented over-enthusiastic visitors from getting too close.

The entrance fee allowed Couney to cover all his costs as he went about his task admirably. At a time when hospitals across the country were turning away from their responsibility of caring for premature babies, Couney welcomed them with open arms.

The incubator doctor

He not only hired the best doctors and nurses to take care of the babies, but he also accepted babies from all backgrounds. He never once saw their colour or class, nor did he ever accept payments from parents. Distressed, desperate parents were soon flocking to “the incubator doctor”, who then worked his magic.

Despite the fact that Couney wasn’t a trained medical practitioner, his methods started gaining traction. His facility in Coney Islands ran from 1903-1943 and he was able to replicate his success in other facilities he established as well.

Even though doctors were sceptical about Couney’s ways and even tried to discredit him, there was no denying that it was working. While there is no way to authenticate the numbers, there is reason to believe that Couney took in around 8,000 babies during the course of his career and was able to save about 6,500 of them. By the 1940s, neonatal care started becoming mainstream.

Incubators have come a long way since the time Couney had to showcase babies in them in carnivals. NICUs are now state-of-the-art in many hospitals, providing exclusive care for babies. Incubators these days protect preterm babies from infections, excessive noise or light. They also provide automatic adjustments based on the baby’s temperature and photo-therapy using special lights to treat neonatal jaundice, which is becoming increasingly common. And it all started with one man who believed he could make a difference.


Picture Credit : Google