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Baby Incubators: From Boardwalk Sideshow to Medical Marvel

September 12, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

In the late 19th century, thousands of premature babies’ lives were saved—while attracting oglers at amusement parks.

Dr. Martin Couney saved the lives of many babies at the 1937 New York World’s Fair with his incubators.

If you headed to Coney Island at the turn of the century, you might wade in the water, eat some ice cream, or try out a rollercoaster at the newly opened amusement park, Luna Park. But your boardwalk promenade might also include a visit to the equivalent of a fully functional neonatal intensive care unit, complete with incubators filled with sleeping, premature babies.

It wouldn’t be a fluke: babies in incubators were a common sideshow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Premature infants could be found at world’s fairs and in permanent exhibitions like the one at Luna Park. But the babies weren’t there to be on display—they were there to fight for their lives with the help of an intrepid German man, Martin Couney.

Couney used the most modern technology of his age, incubators, to keep preemies alive. But before his groundbreaking work, the technology was laughed at or dismissed by physicians.

Incubators for babies had been developed by Stéphane Tarnier, a French obstetrician who had seen them being used at a zoo. Tarnier adapted the idea he’d seen used on baby chicks for baby humans. But they were not widely adapted in the first years of their existence.

Baby incubators in use at the Port-Royal Maternity Hospital in Paris, France, which was under the direction of Dr. Tarnier.

Part of the problem was the medical profession’s attitude toward premature babies. Caring for premature babies was expensive and, many thought, pointless. Babies born at a low birth weight were cared for, but mortality was high and physicians thought that Tarnier’s invention was unscientific. It was so new and unusual that few doctors believe in its life-saving potential.

Enter Pierre Budin, a French physician who wondered why more hospitals weren’t investing in incubators. Though he began conducting successful research with the technology in 1888, he ran into continual roadblocks when it came to getting support for incubators. So in 1896, he decided to display incubators at the Berlin World’s Fair.

At the time, fairs weren’t just places to take in rides or eat food. Starting in 1851, when Victorian-era Englanders staged the Great Exhibition, they were …read more