Back In The Early 20th, This Fake Doctor Saved 6,500 Premature Babies By Turning Them Into A Sideshow Attraction

Published 5 years ago

Back in the early 20th century, medicine clearly wasn’t as advanced as it is now. This meant that many prematurely born babies did not survive due to there not being enough knowledge on how to handle them. However, one man stepped up and almost single-handedly revolutionalized the neonatal treatment of premature babies.

A 1933 article titled Saving Babies even described premature babies as looking like “tiny monkeys” and one woman who was born prematurely even recalled that the hospitals did not have any help for her at all. “It was just: you die because you didn’t belong in the world,” said the woman. But that’s when Martin Couney stepped in.

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One man helped save the lives of 6,500 premature babies by turning them into a sideshow attraction

Image credits: New York Public Library

Couney was a man with no medical education but claimed to be a protégé Pierre-Constant Budin – a French doctor who popularized incubators in Europe. Baby incubators were first introduced in Paris back in the 1880s and by 1896, Couney was displaying them at the Berlin Exposition. He traveled to many exhibitions before settling in the USA in 1903. It was there that he started running a premature baby sideshow up until the early 1940s.

He would charge 25 cents to see the babies and later use the money for their care

Image credits: New York Public Library

He would charge people 25 cents to see the tiny babies in the incubators and used the funds for their care. It eventually went on to become one of the most popular attractions on Coney Island.

Some speculated that Couney was only pretending to be a doctor

Image credits: New York Public Library

25 cents don’t sound like much, especially when you consider that each incubator cost Couney $15 per day to run. That’s over $400 in today’s money! Yet somehow the man managed to keep them running.

That eventually led to him being shunned by the medical world

Medical professionals considered Couney to be nothing more than a showman and shunned him form the medical world. This, however, did not stop the man – he even told the media he would only stop when there’d be sufficient care provided for the premature babies. The incubators Couney used were made of steel and glass and the warm temperature inside was provided by a hot water boiler that heated the mesh bed on which the baby slept on. The “Infant Incubators” sideshow was always kept spotlessly clean and since Couney was an advocate for breastfeeding, he would fire any nurse caught drinking or smoking.

Real doctor or not, his actions helped to change the course of American medical history

Image credits: New York Public Library

It is estimated that throughout his career, Couney helped save around 6,500 premature babies. In the early 1940s, people lost interest in the premature baby sideshow, but at the same time, more and more hospitals started opening units that would take care of premature babies. This meant that Couney’s dream had finally come true. Sadly, the man who singlehandedly changed the treatment of premature babies, died in the 1950s without a penny in his pocket.

Here’s what the people had to say

Aušrys Uptas

One day, this guy just kind of figured - "I spend most of my time on the internet anyway, why not turn it into a profession?" - and he did! Now he not only gets to browse the latest cat videos and fresh memes every day but also shares them with people all over the world, making sure they stay up to date with everything that's trending on the web. Some things that always pique his interest are old technologies, literature and all sorts of odd vintage goodness. So if you find something that's too bizarre not to share, make sure to hit him up!

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