The Incubator Babies of Coney Island: How an Early 1900s Boardwalk Attraction Saved Thousands of Premature Babies Lives

Step right up, folks!

Shoot the Chutes!

Thrill to the Fire and Flames show!

Ride an ele­phant!

See the Beard­ed Lady!

Ear­ly in the 20th cen­tu­ry, crowds flocked to New York City’s Coney Island, where won­ders await­ed at every turn.

In 1902, the Brook­lyn Dai­ly Eagle pub­lished a few of the high­lights in store for vis­i­tors at Coney Island’s soon-to-open “elec­tric Eden,” Luna Park:

…the most impor­tant will be an illus­tra­tion of Jules Verne’s ‘Twen­ty Thou­sand Leagues Under the Sea’, which will cov­er 55,000 square feet of ground, and a naval spec­ta­to­ri­um, which will have a water area of 60,000 square feet. Beside these we will have many nov­el­ties, includ­ing the Riv­er Styx, the Whirl of the Town, Shoot­ing the White Horse Rapids, the Grand Canyon, the ’49 Min­ing Camp, Drag­on Rouge, over­land and incline rail­ways, Japan­ese, Philip­pine, Irish, Eski­mo and Ger­man vil­lages, the infant incu­ba­tor, water show and car­ni­val, cir­cus and hip­po­drome, Yel­low­stone Park, zoo­log­i­cal gar­dens, per­form­ing wild beasts, sea lions and seals, caves of Capri, the Flori­da Ever­glades and Mont Pelee, an elec­tric rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the vol­canic destruc­tion of St. Pierre.

Hold up a sec…what’s this about an infant incu­ba­tor? What kind of name is that for a roller coast­er!?

As it turns out, amid all the exot­i­ca and bedaz­zle­ments, a build­ing fur­nished with steel and glass cribs, heat­ed from below by tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled hot water pipes, was one of the boardwalk’s lead­ing attrac­tions.

Anti­sep­tic-soaked wool act­ed as a rudi­men­ta­ry air fil­ter, while an exhaust fan kept things prop­er­ly ven­ti­lat­ed.

The real draw were the pre­ma­ture babies who inhab­it­ed these cribs every sum­mer, tend­ed to round the clock by a capa­ble staff of white clad nurs­es, wet nurs­es and Dr. Mar­tin Couney, the man who had the ideas to put these tiny new­borns on display…and in so doing, saved thou­sands of lives.

Couney, a breast feed­ing advo­cate who once appren­ticed under the founder of mod­ern peri­na­tal med­i­cine, obste­tri­cian Pierre-Con­stant Budin, had no license to prac­tice.

Nor did he have an md.

Ini­tial­ly paint­ed as a child-exploit­ing char­la­tan by many in the med­ical com­mu­ni­ty, he was as vague about his back­ground as he was pas­sion­ate about his advo­ca­cy for pre­emies whose sur­vival depend­ed on robust inter­ven­tion.

Hav­ing pre­sent­ed Bud­in’s Kinder­bru­tanstalt — child hatch­ery —  to spec­ta­tors at 1896’s Great Indus­tri­al Expo­si­tion of Berlin, and anoth­er infant incu­ba­tor show as part of Queen Vic­to­ria Dia­mond Jubilee Cel­e­bra­tion, he knew first­hand the pub­lic’s capac­i­ty to become invest­ed in the pre­emies’ wel­fare, despite a gen­er­al lack of inter­est on the part of the Amer­i­can med­ical estab­lish­ment.

Thus­ly was the idea for the board­walk Infan­to­ri­ums hatched.

Claire Pren­tice, author of Mir­a­cle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doc­tor Saved Thou­sands of Babies and Trans­formed Amer­i­can Med­i­cine, writes that “many doc­tors at the time held the view that pre­ma­ture babies were genet­i­cal­ly infe­ri­or ‘weak­lings’ whose fate was a mat­ter for God.”

As word of Couney’s Infan­to­ri­um spread, par­ents brought their pre­ma­ture new­borns to Coney Island, know­ing that their chances of find­ing a life­sav­ing incu­ba­tor there was far greater than it would be in the hos­pi­tal. And the care there would be both high­ly skilled and free, under­writ­ten by pay­ing spec­ta­tors who observed the oper­a­tion through a glass win­dow. Pren­tice notes that “Couney took in babies from all back­grounds, regard­less of race or social class:”

… a remark­ably pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy, espe­cial­ly when he start­ed out. He did not take a pen­ny from the par­ents of the babies. In 1903 it cost around $15 (equiv­a­lent to around $405 today) a day to care for each baby; Couney cov­ered all the costs through the entrance fees.

The New York­er’s A. J. Liebling observed Couney at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flush­ing, Queens, where he had set up in a pink-and-blue build­ing that beck­oned vis­i­tors with a sign declar­ing “All the World Loves a Baby:”

The back­bone of Dr. Couney’s busi­ness is sup­plied by the repeaters. A repeater becomes inter­est­ed in one baby and returns at inter­vals of a week or less to note its growth. Repeaters attend more assid­u­ous­ly than most of the patients’ par­ents, even though the par­ents get in on pass­es. After a pre­emie grad­u­ates, a chron­ic repeater picks out anoth­er one and starts watch­ing it. Dr. Couney’s prize repeater, a Coney Island woman named Cas­satt, vis­it­ed his exhib­it there once a week for thir­ty-six sea­sons. Repeaters, as one might expect, are often child­less mar­ried peo­ple, but just as often they are inter­est­ed in babies because they have so many chil­dren of their own. “It works both ways,” says Dr. Couney, with qui­et plea­sure.

It’s esti­mat­ed that Couney’s incu­ba­tors spared the lives of more than 6,500 pre­ma­ture babies in the Unit­ed States, Lon­don, Paris, Mex­i­co and Brazil.

Despite his lack of bonafides, a num­ber of pedi­a­tri­cians who toured Couney’s infan­to­ri­ums were impressed by what they saw, and began refer­ring patients whose fam­i­lies could not afford to pay for med­ical care. Many, as Liebling report­ed in 1939, wished his board­walk attrac­tion could stay open year round, “for the ben­e­fit of win­ter pre­emies:”

In the ear­ly years of the cen­tu­ry no Amer­i­can hos­pi­tal had good facil­i­ties for han­dling pre­ma­tures, and there is no doubt that every win­ter many babies whom Dr. Couney could have saved died. Even today it is dif­fi­cult to get ade­quate care for pre­ma­ture infants in a clin­ic. Few New York hos­pi­tals have set up spe­cial depart­ments for their ben­e­fit, because they do not get enough pre­ma­ture babies to war­rant it; there are not enough doc­tors and nurs­es expe­ri­enced in this field to go around. Care of pre­ma­tures as pri­vate patients is hideous­ly expen­sive. One item it involves is six dol­lars a day for moth­er’s milk, and oth­ers are rental of an incu­ba­tor and hos­pi­tal room, oxy­gen, sev­er­al vis­its a day by a physi­cian, and fif­teen dol­lars a day for three shifts of nurs­es. The New York hos­pi­tals are mak­ing plans now to cen­tral­ize their work with pre­ma­tures at Cor­nell Med­ical Cen­ter, and prob­a­bly will have things orga­nized with­in a year. When they do, Dr. Couney says, he will retire. He will feel he has “made enough pro­pa­gan­da for pre­emies.”


Lis­ten to a Sto­ryCorps inter­view with Lucille Horn, a 1920 grad­u­ate of Couney’s Coney Island incu­ba­tors below.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Lit­tle Albert Exper­i­ment: The Per­verse 1920 Study That Made a Baby Afraid of San­ta Claus & Bun­nies

Why Babies in Medieval Paint­ings Look Like Mid­dle-Aged Men: An Inves­tiga­tive Video

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. She greet­ed 2024 with thou­sands of oth­er New York­ers, tak­ing a polar bear plunge at Coney Island. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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