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I came across this book after hearing, “My Life Under Glass” on Radio 4 – a documentary about Dr Martin Couney’s Infant Incubator exhibit, bizarrely situated at Coney Island. This is the story of how a sideshow doctor saved thousands of lives and transformed medicine, though exhibiting premature babies in a sideshow exhibit. From 1904 to 1943 the crowds flocked to see a medical miracle - while the parents of the babies were never charged for the care, the cost being met by the entrance fee, the question is whether they were exploited. Indeed, this is central to the book – was Dr Couney a showman and a charlatan or a dedicated life saver?
Although this is a kindle single, it actually covers a lot in terms of the history of the early care of premature babies and of Couney’s actual life story. We begin with Martin Couney’s (or Cohen’s) early life. How he told his story (although, as we later learn, he had the showman’s ability to reinvent himself) from being born in Alsace-Lorraine and studying under obstetrician Pierre Budin. How he was sent to the Berlin Industrial Exposition in 1896 and found himself between a Congo ‘village’ and Tyrolean yodellers in ‘The Child Hatchery’. Therefore, the linking of science and technology and entertainment was one that was familiar to him. However, when he attempted to take the exhibit to London, doctors were not keen that babies should be used as a sideshow attraction and he had to bring premature babies from France.
By the time Dr Couney arrived in Nebraska , desperate parents were arriving with their babies, looking for hope. At that time, premature babies really had no medical treatment available. Dr Couney’s exhibit – his incubators which kept babies warm and free from germs – seemed to work. Still, his exhibit was always controversial; with the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children calling for the exhibition of infants of places of amusement to be banned.
Throughout his career, Dr Couney craved professional recognition, but being based at Coney Island obviously cast a shadow over this. So, was he running a freak show? Or did he spread important medical ideas and technology? There seems no doubt that he saved thousands of babies and this is a brilliant re-telling of a little known story. I certainly had no idea that incubators were made popular in an amusement park and found this a very interesting and well told story.
This wasn't a bad book until Ms. Prentice decided to throw in the shocking fact she uncovered (which the NYT & the New Yorker didn't find out she keeps assuring us.)
Which is that the doctor may not have had a medical degree.
Yeah. Which if she had done any research on the education of doctors before 1910 and the Flexner report would not have been as shocking as she seems to think.
But that lack of a piece of paper throws her completely off. Pay no mind to the fact that this man saved thousands of lives and popularized incubators - Ms. Prentice couldn't find a piece of paper.
She then wants to believe he didn't work with the French doctor who first showed incubators - but neglects to mention how he found the nurse who did work with the French doctor. Neglects to mention how a conman happened to set up a scientific incubation system which saved lives. Neglects to mention why the people who were against him didn't find this relevant.
I don't consider myself a historical expert and even I knew that a medical school degree didn't mean that the person was qualified before the AMA started cracking down in the 1910s.
She's overly impressed with what she discovered or seems to have discovered and failed to understand the wider context of the time.
Having spent the first 6 weeks of my Iife in an incubator in the early 60s, I was curious about this book. It's well researched and an entertaining read. However, the author seems to want to prove (convince herself?) whether Dr. Couney was taking advantage of the babies or a medical pioneer. In my opinion, both but does it matter? I was surprised to find out doctors didn't think premature infants were worth saving and most didn't survive. Dr. Couney created this innovative business model which allowed for his meticulous expensive care of preemies while not charging the parents a dime. They thrived because of his meticulous and intuitive approach and he made a comfortable living. The few charlatans that tried to imitate him did not last because the babies did not survive. The author's research proved he didn't go to medical school or train with preemies in Europe before coming to the US. I don't think it matters since he never claimed to be a doctor or worked as one although he used the title "Dr". A bit of showmanship perhaps? The issue is not whether he took advantage of these infants or was a medically trained doctor but rather he proved that preemies could be nursed into healthy babies and were worth saving - against the attitude and recommendations of the medical community of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's his methodology in neonatal care that allowed hospitals to widely adopt incubator care in the early 40s, giving us preemies a fair chance. Bravo Dr. Couney!
I have casually tried over the years to find more information on this surprisingly forgotten history. I’m glad this author dug deep to describe Couney. I only wish there was more context, like the adoption rates of incubators in Europe, as well as to explain how hospitals may have operated at the time. This would perhaps expose why Couney performed his mission as he did. Additionally, there is no quantification to contrast the relative measure of Couney’s impact. And there is now real context setting for the role of communication here. There were newspapers and journal articles, but when this story begins, before telephones, radio, and television, these fairs were nearly the only and best option available for communicating. And with respect to technology, the automobile was just getting out. To show that a machine could move beyond transportation and industrial automation to save the most vulnerable of us would have been awe inspiring, and that’s what these exhibitions were all about. These aspects to the story were not amplified. Nevertheless, it is by far the most comprehensive and concise presentation of this man and his work. I highly recommend the read.
This is a very interesting and bizarre tale. Today it sounds so strange that premature infants were used in a side show - dare I say freak show - at world fairs and Coney Island. A lot of things people used to do back in the early 20th century seems odd now when one looks back on it. But this actually turned out well for the infants, most of whom lived. Human life was not seen as valuable back then as it is now. Even in the 1950's parents did not hover around their children as they do nowadays. Kids were allowed to bounce around the car like pennies in a tin can and nothing was considered as to safety. The author writes well and the book moves quickly.
What an amazing story of how a Sideshow Doctor saved thousands of babies, some still living! My parents often spoke of the babies saved by this man who invented incubators and the many babies who lived in them! Had to read every word of this historical book! An incredible story!
A fascinating read for any Preemie born during those times. I was born on a stretcher in the hospital elevator and was 3 months premature. I weighed less than 2 pounds and have no idea how I was cared for while in the nursery for those months while on lookers who wanted to see "the freak".. This was a wonderful insight for me to learn how other Preemies were cared for and survived.