Like many children growing up in busy families, sometimes I had to go into work with my dad. I loved it! My dad worked in a big city hospital and when we got there, he would guide me through the labyrinth of hallways to the neonatal intensive care unit where he parked me in front of a big window while he went off to do his work.
I pressed my nose to the glass and didn’t take my eyes off the nurses caring for the tiny babies, born too small, inside their incubators. “Tiny” is an understatement…these babies easily fit into the hands of the caregivers as they were gently monitored, cleaned and massaged. I learned from my father that the neonatal intensive care unit at his hospital was one of the very best in the country and that these babies did very well because of the incubator technology that was there.
But incubators are relatively new in the world of medicine. A basic warming incubator was developed in France in the 1880s, but it took a much more entrepreneurial mind to develop the incubator into something that would not only warm the babies but help their premature lungs develop.
This person was Dr. Martin Couney. He worked with doctors in Europe and brought this new technology over to America. But it wasn’t that simple. At the time, most babies were born at home and so hospitals did not want or need the expensive equipment. So, like in Europe, Dr. Couney began to set up incubator “shows” in places like the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, NY. He was reluctant to charge fees for people to come “watch” the premature babies, but he had no choice.
Eventually Dr. Couney set up permanent incubator exhibits at Coney Island, one at Luna Park from 1903 to 1943 and the other at Dreamland from 1904 until the fire of 1911 (all the babies were rescued). He rationalized the public nature of these exhibits by being able to prove to a dubious public that this new technology actually worked, by being able to continue to afford the staff and machinery through ticket sales, and most importantly, by being able to save the lives of more than 6,500 of the 8,000 babies that stayed there as premature infants. He even cared for his own daughter who had been born weighing only three pounds! (She later worked as one of the baby attendants.) None of the parents of the babies were ever charged for this care — most would not have been able to afford it and so were extremely grateful.
In a New York Times article on August 1, 1904, it was reported that a reunion of babies who were “graduates” of Dr. Couney’s incubator exhibits was held at Dreamland, Coney Island. Dr. Couney was very interested to see how the children were doing. The reporter writes, “It would be hard to find a finer set of infants anywhere than those which cooed in their mothers’ arms while their photographs were being taken yesterday afternoon, or a more satisfied set of paters and maters.”
After 40 years, Dr. Couney finally shut down the incubator exhibits, citing the expense of maintaining the high cost. But he said that his goal had been reached — to convince doctors, hospitals and the public that the use of incubators for premature infants is an invaluable technology. By the time he retired, many hospitals around the country had created neonatal units using his incubator technology.
I was not born prematurely, but one of my daughters was, and she spent some time in one of the modern incubators, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of people like Dr. Couney and his caring staff.
“The Incubator and the Medical Discovery of the Premature Infant,” Jeffrey P. Baker, MD, PhD, Journal of Perinatology 2000; 5:321-328, © Nature America Inc.
“Incubator Graduates Hold a Reunion: Forty Healthy Babies Meet at Coney Island,” The New York Times, August 1, 1904.