How “The Incubator Doctor” Saved 1,000s of Babies

incubator doctor

Step right up and pay to see one of the most fascinating sights on Coney Island: The incubation doctor’s premature babies!

Sounds crazy? Well, this is exactly what Martin A. Couney was doing as entertainment for his sideshow at Coney Island and the World’s Fairs.

Martin A. Couney was known across America as “the Incubator Doctor.” Shockingly, he was actually not a formal doctor at all. Martin was a Jewish-German immigrant who just had a deep love of helping children and felt a calling to make a career out of it. 

So how did Martin ended up saving thousands of premature babies in the 1900s? Keep reading to learn his story!

Martin’s “Medical” Background

Martin received a European medical degree in Germany, but today’s historians agree that he was “not a physician by formal training.” He claimed that he had some medical knowledge, but approximately the same amount of medical training we claim to have after watching “Grey’s Anatomy” or scrolling through WebMD.

Martin was first introduced to incubators and the massive effects they have on assisting babies that were written off as “weaklings” by doctors through his time with French doctor, Dr. Pierre-Constant Budin (and yes that man was actually a trained medical professional). Dr. Budin conducted a lot of work relating to infants and their mortality rates. Working with Budin, Couney created the first display of children incubators in 1896

Image Source: New York Public Library 

Martin Couney’s Coney Island Incubator Babies

For more than three decades, Martin put together the exhibits that displayed the premature infants in incubators. While his exhibit was staged at Coney Island, where most families gathered to ride roller coasters and have fun, his exhibit was a full-on, professional clinic. Martin even hired teams of nurses to care and tend to the infants. 

Visitors stare at babies in incubators at Martin Couney’s New York World’s Fair attraction, 1939-1940. NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

How Much Did This All Cost?

While Martin charged visitors 25 cents to view the babies, it was no small cost to put the exhibit together. It was reported that it cost $75,000 dollars (approximately $1.5 million today) to build one exhibit. But the costs didn’t matter – Couney was determined to save these babies and help their families.

The odds were against Martin. The exhibit was costly, medical professionals weren’t providing these kids with life-saving assistance, and there were even attempts to shut him down due to the belief his work was “against maternal nature.” It was up to Martin and his incubators to help these sick infants. And that’s exactly what he did. 

How Many Babies Did Martin Save?

He saved more than 7,000 premature babies, including his own daughter Hildegarde. He had a total success rate of more than 85%. Not too shabby!

The Legacy of Martin Couney’s Incubator Babies

These incubators went from just being used in Couney’s sideshow exhibits to being used in actual hospitals. All around the world, incubators can be seen in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of hospitals. Premature babies, whether it was back in the early 1900s or in today’s world, are very common. During the time that Couney was around, doctors did not have the proper medical care to save these babies, and would treat these premature births as lost causes. This led to 3 out of 4 premature babies dying due to lack of care. 

Thankfully, doctors and medical professionals today are way more equipped to handle and care for these babies. While it is estimated that 15 million babies are born premature, only 1 million die from it. That is a 0.07% mortality rate, compared to 75% mortality rate back in the 1900s.

While Martin Couney may become lost in medical history, his dedication, determination, and implementation of  life-saving medical care  – turned circus act – will live on forever.

Watch to learn more about Martin Couney and his Coney Island baby exhibit: The Forgotten Carnival Sideshow That Saved Countless Babies’ Lives – YouTube

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