Preemie babies saved by a doctor who displayed them in a carnival sideshow tell their curious story

By Rose Minutaglio
Updated August 03, 2015 03:40 PM
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Credit: Mel Evans/AP

In the early 20th century, Dr. Martin Couney saved 7,500 prematurely born babies – by placing them in incubators next to burlesque dancers and bearded ladies.

Couney, an incubator technology pioneer, helped preemies survive by showcasing them in what was, at the time, advanced and mysterious glass incubators at Coney Island and Atlantic City sideshows.

To fund his project, Couney charged 25 cents for carnival-goers to peer into the glass cribs, with signs like “Life Begins at the Baby Incubator,” luring in huge crowds, the Associated Press reports.

Lucille Horn, 95, reflected on her memory of meeting (and thanking) Dr. Couney, who had accepted her into his show, thus saving her life. Horn’s twin sister had died soon after birth and doctors told her family there wasn’t much hope for her.

“It’s a story mom has told many times. Hearing her tell it now, it’s given me a new sense of appreciation for actually how precarious things were for her in the beginning and actually how gutsy Dr. Couney was,” her daughter, Barbara Horn, told the news source.

Similarly, Beth Allen, born prematurely in 1941, survived, while her twin sister did not. Allen’s mother was hesitant to put her daughter in one of Couney’s incubators, but she was eventually persuaded by her husband.

“The whole thing is just amazing to me, and the older I get, the more appreciative I am of the opportunity that I was given to be here to talk to you, and to live a wonderful life that I had” Allen of Hackensack New Jersey, told the Associated Press.

Medical Historians estimate that Couney, who died in 1950, saved around 7,500 of the 8,500 babies that he incubated.

“We think this is a spectacle. We could never do this today, but at the time, he was a leader. And I think we owe a lot of the very basic principles of neonatology to this gentleman,” Dr. Richard Schanler, director of neonatal services at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York told the news source.