The Strange Story Of How A Mysterious Coney Island Showman Saved The Lives Of Millions Of Babies

On May 23, 1941, Beth Allen came into the world three months prematurely – weighing just 1lb 10oz. And tragically, her twin, who had been born with insufficiently developed lungs, ultimately passed away. But there was hope for Beth, medics explained, if her mother took her to see a Coney Island showman…

Perched in the New York borough of Brooklyn, Coney Island was then one of the foremost attractions in the U.S. Drawing millions of visitors annually, the beachside resort was home at the time to gaudy sideshows and rollercoasters. It was therefore an incongruous place to seek neonatal care – perhaps why Beth’s mother initially refused to take her newborn daughter to the area.

What’s more, the individual who Beth’s mom had been suggested to visit seemed an unlikely purveyor of medical expertise. Clad in a straw boater hat, he was often found outside his Coney Island exhibition drumming up custom. But the man in question was in fact a pioneer and a philanthropist. And his unconventional contribution to neonatology helped to save the lives of countless babies.

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Born in 1869 in the former northern European state of Prussia, the showman’s original name was Martin Cohn. He had reportedly graduated from medicine in Leipzig before, he had asserted, becoming a student of the world-famous French obstetrician Pierre-Constant Budin. Cohn then emigrated to the U.S. and changed his name to Martin Couney.

Couney’s supposed mentor, Budin, was a fierce proponent of a new medical invention: the neonatal incubator. And according to the future Coney Island huckster, Budin had sent him to exhibit some empty incubators at the Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin in 1896. Upon realizing that an actual working exhibition may be a good idea, however, Couney apparently procured six babies from a local hospital and added them to the display. He called the resulting presentation a “Kinderbrutanstalt” – or child hatchery.

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Incubators themselves are designed to provide vulnerable babies with stable environments for the first weeks or months of their lives. And, first and foremost, the apparatus protects young children by maintaining warm and constant temperatures around them. During Couney’s time, incubators drew external air into the chamber and heated it in order to keep newborns comfortable; the resulting stale air was then expelled through an exhaust vent.

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And Couney’s experiences at the Berlin Exposition appear to have been formative, as he apparently went on to exhibit incubators at fairs in London, Omaha, Paris and Buffalo. Finally, in 1903, he established a permanent exhibition near Luna Park on Coney Island; there, he charged visitors 25 cents to view premature babies in incubators.

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If the idea of exhibiting babies seems unconventional by 21st-century standards, it appears to have been no more acceptable in the early 20th century. Writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, one reporter observed that the concept of “haranguing the passing throng in an effort to divert its shekels for a spectacle so serious – not to say sacred – strikes one as questionable, almost repellent.”

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But then show business was a large part of Couney’s operation. Outside the exhibition, barkers would attract visitors with cries such as “Don’t pass the babies by!” And inside, for the benefit of paying customers, a nurse would sometimes slide a diamond ring on a newborn’s wrist to demonstrate how small the child was. Having apparently formed emotional connections with certain babies, some customers would also return to check on the youngsters’ progress.

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However, beyond the hustle and razzmatazz was a serious neonatal care operation. In her 2018 book The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies, Dawn Raffel wrote that “[the babies were] placed in an incubator and kept at 96[°F] or so, depending on the patient. Every two hours, those who could suckle were carried upstairs on a tiny elevator and fed by breast by wet nurses… The rest [were fed by] a funneled spoon.”

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And Couney exhibited the babies to raise revenue for their care. Looking after the youngsters cost approximately $15 per baby per day at the time – equivalent to about $405 in 2018. By charging for admission, then, Couney was able to cover his expenses and offer his services for free.

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Furthermore, while Couney did not leave any records of his patients, he nevertheless claimed to have saved the lives of around 85 percent of them. Among the children he cared for was his own daughter; she had been born weighing under three pounds and so had passed the next three months inside an incubator.

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However, although Couney’s contribution to childcare was reportedly significant, in 2016 a writer called Claire Prentice claimed that the good doctor was not all that he seemed. While conducting research for a book called Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine, Prentice discovered that Couney had never studied under pioneering neonatologist Buden. What’s more, the man apparently did not even possess a medical degree.

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“I could find no evidence of Couney – or Cohn/Cohen as he was known then – having studied medicine,” Prentice wrote for Smithsonian magazine. “To become a physician in Germany, one was required to write a thesis. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has copies of the German records, [and] the librarians could not locate a thesis written by Couney.” Prentice added that Couney had emigrated at the age of 19 and had therefore been too young to have studied under Budin.

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Did it matter that Couney lied about his background? If the truth had emerged during his lifetime, his operation would certainly have been scandalized. But the bigger issue, perhaps, was that U.S. hospitals were not initially in the practice of using incubators. And while Couney tried to donate all his equipment to New York City in 1940, the apparatus was ultimately rejected – perhaps due in part to a lack of personnel trained to deal with the machines.

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But there may also have been a much darker reason why the medical establishment made relatively little effort to save vulnerable babies at that time. “You had a raging climate of eugenics, which did not directly target preemies but did directly target children who had severe disabilities,” Raffel told the New York Post in 2018. “It was an environment where we only wanted to produce the fittest babies. That was a very strong cultural undercurrent. People just felt like these children were not worth saving.”

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Qualified or not, Couney was one of those who believed in saving premature babies – and doing so for free too. And throughout his life, he was rewarded with visits from the growing children he had saved. Among them was Beth Allen, whose parents took her back to see Couney on Father’s Days.

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In fact, Allen would probably not have thrived without Couney’s help, as she explained in a recording for the Coney Island History Project – a non-profit organization working to document the area’s past. “I seem to have survived very well,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine what a 1lb 10oz baby looks like.”

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Then, in 1950, Couney died in relative poverty at the age of 80. He had shut down his exhibition seven years earlier – partly due to dwindling custom. “Thirty-five years ago I could do more business with 60,000 visitors than I can do with 500,000 now,” Couney reportedly said in 1940. “Coney Island is so degraded now – even the hot dogs cost only a nickel – that people bargain to see my babies.”

But Couney had also terminated his exhibition because a premature infant ward had been established at Cornell New York Hospital in 1943 – the first of its kind in the city. “I made propaganda for the preemie,” he allegedly said at the time. “My work is done.” Indeed, thanks to Couney, neonatal incubators are now in widespread use across the U.S., and millions of babies have been saved as a result.

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