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Theme Park History: Dr. Martin Couney and the Coney Island 'Child Hatchery'

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Published: October 20, 2013 at 10:25 AM

Of all the stories in theme park history (and perhaps medical history), one of the most curious has to be the story of Dr. Martin Couney.

Dr. Martin Couney

Born in 1870 in Germany, Dr Couney was one of the early pioneers of neonatology. He helped to develop the baby incubator and methods of caring for premature babies. In the late 1890s, his senior associates tasked him with spreading the word of the new technology to doctors and hospitals. Couney developed an exhibit and began demonstrations at fairs and expos around the world. The exhibits proved to be very popular, but more so with the curious general public than the medical industry they were intended to reach. The exhibit generated considerable crowds and revenue, but doctors and hospitals just weren’t that interested at the time.

After traveling exhibitions throughout Europe and the US for a few years, Dr. Couney set up a permanent exhibition in the newly opened Luna Park at Coney Island. In those days, hospitals had no special care for premature babies, so Couney was never short of patients. The outside of the building was no different than the other sideshows surrounding it. The sign above the door read “Life Begins With The Baby Incubator.” Customers were enticed in by a carnival barker and charged 25 cents to come and see the “child hatchery.”

Coney Island incubator exhibit

The inside was essentially a hospital. The atmosphere was quiet and clinical, incubators lined the walls, and trained nurses were employed to care for the babies. One of the nurses was Couney’s daughter, who ironically enough was born premature and spent some time in the incubator herself. The wet nurses employed to feed the babies were ordered on diets, and were fired if caught eating a hot dog or some other fried fare from the boardwalk. Tour guides were fired if they made jokes during the presentation. The rules and regulations for infant care were strictly enforced, and professionalism was emphasized. It was important to distinguish themselves at least a little from the pandemonium surrounding them.

Coney Island nurses Coney Island incubators

Naturally, there were those opposed to the idea of putting premature babies on display for the purposes of entertainment and profit. More than once there was a movement to shut him down. Dr. Couney had his reasons though, for throughout the show’s existence, he never charged a cent to the parents of the children he treated. It was the revenue of the paying customers covering the very high operating costs. He never took a payment for his services, and he accepted children of all kinds. Race, economic class, and social status were never factors in his decision to treat. The names were always kept anonymous, and in later years the doctor would stage reunions of his “graduates.” The medical profession that had once called him into question eventually embraced his methods and began promoting their use and sending him patients. Dr. Couney would eventually open more incubator attractions…a couple more at Coney Island and a handful around the country at other amusement centers and fairs.

Eventually, the enormous expense of running the exhibits began to outweigh the revenue as public interest in the attraction waned. Dr. Couney had made his case for the preemie though, and almost forty years after attraction opened, the first research center for premature infants was opened at Cornell University’s New York Hospital, reportedly differing very little from his operation. By this time, other hospitals were also opening treatment centers of their own. In 1943, Couney declared his work “finished” and closed for good. It’s reported that over 40 years of operation, Couney’s incubator attractions had an 80% success rate and saved about 6500 newborns from almost certain death. He died a few years later in 1950, having left his mark in both the theme park and medical industry.

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Readers' Opinions

From Tim Hillman on October 20, 2013 at 11:32 AM
Dr. Couney's story is a fascinating piece of history that I'd never come across before. It's sad that advances in science and medicine had to be sometimes treated as sideshow displays during that era, but when you consider that there was no television and limited radio let alone anything like the internet back then, it makes sense in a strange way.

Thank you for this interesting article, Derek. You did a great job of tying together history, theme parks, and societal change!

From Annette Forrest on October 20, 2013 at 11:57 AM
Great article!!! Hope it is a series. It was so interesting and a fun read on a Sunday morning. Keep up the great work!!!
From Phil B. on October 20, 2013 at 3:56 PM
Fascinating article, and a really interesting story. Great job!
From KJ Simpson on October 20, 2013 at 4:33 PM
This is so interesting- I've never heard anything about this before. This is the kind of piece that makes me want to do some research. Thank you!!
From Jonah Sirota on October 20, 2013 at 5:00 PM
Educate, entertain, inspire. That's it right there.
From Amanda Jenkins on October 20, 2013 at 6:00 PM
Awesome article Derek! I have always been a big fan of history and this was very interesting. It is amazing how far we have come medically and theme park wise.
From Jeffrey H on October 20, 2013 at 7:54 PM
That was such a unique and fascinating article. Absolutely one of the best I've ever read on this site, even. Great work!
From Tony Perkins on October 20, 2013 at 10:39 PM
That was a fascinating read and made me hungry for more. You should write a book about this if someone else hasn't already. Could imagine a movie being made of this story, it has the elements for a great narrative.
From Joseph Catlett on October 21, 2013 at 6:04 AM
Excellent, excellent post!
This bit of medical/amusement history was also featured on a few episodes of HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE as one of the attractions on the Atlantic City boardwalk. It was great to read this information which most people, myself included, would never know about.
From James Rao on October 21, 2013 at 6:22 AM
Very interesting! Where do you dig up these fossils, Derek???
From O T on October 21, 2013 at 9:00 AM
Great article. Thanks for sharing it with us.
From James Trexen on October 21, 2013 at 9:05 AM
Great to see you back Derek. Speaking of digging up fossils, where's that trip report Rao you lazy bum?
From Derek Potter on October 21, 2013 at 9:33 AM
Thanks everyone. I read about the incubator attractions some years ago and was always fascinated by the story. Another little factoid I left out...one of the carnival barkers for a time was a young and hungry actor by the name of Archibald Leach...later known around the world as Cary Grant. He hated the job because he didn't like crowds. I guess we all have to start somewhere right.

Again thanks for the kind words and stay tuned for more.

From James Rao on October 21, 2013 at 12:21 PM
@James Working on it... after taking three weeks off from work there is a lot of catching up to do... plus I have a very sick friend I am unexpectedly visiting in the DC area... hard to find time to finalize the report, but I should have it by this weekend. Not that it will be worth the wait, but at least it will be done!

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