"All the World Loves a Baby" read a sign above the entrance.
May 24, 2016 11:48 AM   Subscribe

For years doctors in the US made little attempt to save the lives of premature babies, but there was one place distressed parents could turn for help - a sideshow on Coney Island. In the 1870s, the French obstetrician Tarnier went to the zoo and noticed an incubator for the raising of chicks. He asked its producer to build one capable of holding premature infants, and by the 1890s incubator exhibitions had spread across Europe and the United States. But the most famous one in America was Dr. Couney's exhibition at Coney Island, which ran from 1903 to 1943.
posted by Hypatia (27 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Couney opened another infantorium 2 years later at the Wonderland Park amusement park in central Minneapolis... and the building is still standing. It's a somewhat odd looking apartment building now. A couple neighborhood establishments still have Wonderland Park in the name.
posted by miyabo at 11:53 AM on May 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Fascinating. I'm glad this was taken over by Science and is now in hospitals, but if it hadn't been, yeah, I would totally go to a baby zoo.
posted by Mchelly at 11:55 AM on May 24, 2016 [13 favorites]

Webpage on the infantorium at Wonderland Park in Minneapolis.
posted by larrybob at 12:18 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I first ever heard of this in Boardwalk Empire, which showed one of these in Atlantic City. Very interesting! I love that they talked to some of the babies, and that one even still had her name necklace.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:25 PM on May 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is awesome.

With biohacking and all the DIY science stuff going on today, I feel like this would be a hot book pitch : Citizen Science Through History. The ordinary people who did things science didn't care about and didn't think was possible.
posted by lownote at 12:28 PM on May 24, 2016 [14 favorites]

Oh! Similar baby incubators are mentioned in Deborah Blum's (excellent) "Love at Goon Park," as background for Harry Harlow's experiments with baby monkeys*. From memory, forgive... in the late 19th century, and into the early 20th century, the tenor of advice to parents was not to touch their babies and young children, as contact was thought to spread illness. Baby incubators provided a way for parents and hospitals to keep babies safe and germ-free at the very heavy cost of those babies failing to thrive due to--you guessed it--lack of contact. (This is also true of orphanages of the time, which had between a 80 and 90-some percent mortality rate; it really took until Harlow, Ainsworth, Bowlby, etc. at mid-century to challenge the thinking that an untouched child (save for an occasional pat on the head) is a healthy child.) But this invention was celebrated at the time as the height of hygiene. I'll have to go find "Love at Goon Park," but for anyone who's interested in baby incubators and the importance of reassuring contact to babies, it's a terrific read.

* They are heartbreaking. His 1958 lecture, "On the Nature of Love." Wire mothers, ugh. Poor monkeys. Poor orphans. Poor incubabies.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:29 PM on May 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

I wonder what it was about medical ethics/privacy laws/whatever that changed such that we don't see this sort of thing now. It seems sort of unthinkable to put human beings on display in this way now. What was different then?
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:32 PM on May 24, 2016

What was different then?

Partial answer, from Deborah Blum. Tl;dr: So many preemies died that parents handed them over to Dr. Couney, who used them as a way to promote his kinderbrutanstalt (child hatchery). Staring at a living being who should have been dead is the whole point: people paid to see a miracle.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:39 PM on May 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

into the early 20th century, the tenor of advice to parents was not to touch their babies

Yeah, the baby book Grandma kept for my mother and aunt compared babies to house plants. It was basically: give them the right food, keep them clean, make sure they get enough sunlight, and then just leave them alone and don't bother them. Crying is good exercise for their lungs.

I'm not making this up.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:44 PM on May 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Couney was ahead of his time in that, MonkeyToes: "Couney encouraged his nurses to take the babies out of the incubators to hug and kiss them, believing they responded to affection."

While most human zoo type things are a tragedy, I can't say I see much wrong with this one. Couney seems to have been genuinely dedicated to the idea of saving premature babies, and provided treatment that would have been out of reach of most of the patients' families. And it undoubtedly helped promote the idea of incubators to the public. The care seems to have been good, both medically and emotionally, and I doubt any of the infants were traumatized by people being around them, given how young they were.
posted by tavella at 12:50 PM on May 24, 2016 [23 favorites]

There's a StoryCorps interview with one of the patients, Lucille Horn, here. She was born at under two pounds, the doctors said she'd die, so her father bundled her up and took her to Coney Island.

"The doctor said there’s not a chance in hell that she’ll live, but he said, ‘But she’s alive now,’ and he hailed a cab and took me to Dr. Couney’s exhibit, and that’s where I stayed for about six months."
posted by tavella at 12:59 PM on May 24, 2016 [22 favorites]

There were also incubators at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha in 1898. Dr. Couney again.
posted by maxsparber at 1:08 PM on May 24, 2016

No wire mothers! The trauma!!!!
posted by epj at 1:09 PM on May 24, 2016

I'd call him a hero, but I'm afraid someone will say this proves the market will deal with everything just fine left to itself.
posted by Segundus at 1:16 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, wow--from the last link in the post, "A Patron of the Preemies," by A. J. Liebling (1939). "This preoccupation with the professional niceties does not prevent Dr. Couney from feeling the satisfactions of an ordinary showman. He loves to watch the crowds flocking into his concession and to listen to the people's comments as they come out. The natural propensity of people to exaggerate wonders they have seen gives him pleasure. A woman leaving his concession will exclaim to her friends, "Did you see the first one? Its head was no bigger than a plum!" Of course, neither Dr. Couney nor anybody else has ever seen a live baby as small as that, but such a remark is good for business."
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:34 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank god for this guy. It makes you wonder if without this anybody else would have bothered with such bizarre practices as "try to keep the baby warm" or "try using the same techniques that keep other types of babies alive". And yet again the hilarious pattern emerges in medical history - we find something that works in some cases - you can keep a fragile baby warm in a special box to mimic the womb - must be applied universally from now on - all babies must be kept in boxes at all times. A baby is a thing that is kept in a box.

Wasn't there recently another FPP recently about bed rest - oh hey, new scientific breakthrough- sometimes people need to rest, especially during pregnancy. Wow, amazing, never would have thought of that. OK, all pregnant women should take to their beds, forever.

And of course opium. This stuff eases pain. Great, put it in everything. But wait, it also sometimes has side effects. No one can have any ever again!

See also the giant clusterfuck that is nutritional science. I don't even have to elaborate on that one.

I feel like we're finally starting to wake up and realize this is a really unwise way to proceed with .. I don't know, running a civilization.
posted by bleep at 3:00 PM on May 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

This is amazing and crazy. I had no idea.

An early child rarely dies if it is exempt from hereditary disease and weighs not less than two pounds and three ounces.

I'm sure this is a wild exaggeration, but that he could make it at all! They could save 2 pound 3 ounce babies? In 1896? It's incredible.

(Also, of all the things I've been grateful for since I had my preemies, being able to keep them alive without sending them to live in a carnival sideshow had not crossed my mind. Add that to the list, I guess.)
posted by gerstle at 3:14 PM on May 24, 2016 [10 favorites]

It makes you wonder if without this anybody else would have bothered with such bizarre practices as "try to keep the baby warm" or "try using the same techniques that keep other types of babies alive".

They were already using them in Europe:
The incubators Couney used were the latest models, imported directly from Europe - France was then the world leader in premature infant care with the US lagging several decades behind.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:47 PM on May 24, 2016

"In 1933-1934 at the Chicago's Century of Progress Exposition, Couney's exhibit (Fig. 13) was located on the midway next to Sally Rand's show (the famous fan dancer told arresting policemen that Couney's babies wore fewer clothes than her dancers and she couldn't understand what all the fuss was about)."

That link also provides some numbers for mortality during the New York World's Fair 1939-1940 (96 admitted, 10 deaths), as well as a great photo of the baby hatcheries.

Fascinating stuff, Hypatia. Thanks!
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:44 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

someone will say this proves the market will deal with everything just fine left to itself.

The market loves intensive care for preemies.
posted by meehawl at 5:01 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Shows and expositions and stunts did seem to be a premiere way people advertised back then. If he hadn't had a babytorium probably nobody would believe in the concept at all. But, if it's public and open to everyone, you can actually see it with your own eyes. I imagine there was so much quackery about that being able to show it in public was really important.
posted by BungaDunga at 5:06 PM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

According to the article,
In America, many doctors at the time held the view that premature babies were genetically inferior "weaklings" whose fate was a matter for God. Without intervention, the vast majority of infants born prematurely were destined to die.

I think it was doctors who needed to be convinced of the value of premature lives, not parents.
posted by bleep at 5:34 PM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

It doesn't surprise me that this continued into the 1940s. My grandfather was both a farmer who had experience raising baby chicks and a university-trained engineer. When my aunt was born, a bit more than 70 years ago, my grandfather used the lamps from an incubator for baby chicks and rigged them to be part of a crib or bassinet for my aunt. I think the idea was that the heat would get the baby's circulation going, if the baby had trouble keeping its circulation going on its own. Since my aunt is very much alive and kicking, I'd say it worked out rather well.
posted by jonp72 at 7:42 PM on May 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

By the way, the idea that best practices for caring for animals would be of a higher standard than the best practices for caring for human babies makes total sense if you know the history of childrearing in this country. For example, the first child abuse case ever prosecuted in the United States was done so at the behest of the ASPCA (cite).
posted by jonp72 at 7:47 PM on May 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

My aunt was a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, and took me to visit when I was about 12 (with many many warnings about keeping my voice down and NOT TOUCHING ANYTHING because I was a child and therefore a disgusting disease vector.)

That was my one and only experience actually seeing severely premature infants in person (I have never been a NICU parent myself, though I have known people who have lived on that roller coaster), and it made a very deep impression on me. One of them was just barely over one pound. Her arms reminded me of cigarettes. Her skin was almost transparent.

They all looked (and were) so fragile. Later on my aunt let me understand gently, without pressing the point, that many of them, especially the tiniest ones, would not live. That her job was saving babies, yes, but that part of her job was also losing babies, listening for alarms that meant a baby had died, being too late. And having to comfort the parents. I can still barely imagine what it must have been like for her, in that job. She made crap wages her whole life and often worked nights. Nurses are heroes.

Anyway, there was something very profound about seeing these tiny beings looking sort of inhuman because they were so small and because of all wires and tubes (often covering part of their face), but then these very human hands, and ears, and toes, and their fluttery breath moving their tiny ribs. And they seemed SO vulnerable and SO pricelessly important. It made me feel weirdly vulnerable just knowing I had once been that small (albeit before I was born, because I was not premature), made me feel like human beings in general were sort of ridiculously vulnerable and precious. That sounds cheesy, but it's the best I can do. It was like "What even are we? We were all once like that? How do we even exist?"

Anyway, my point was just going to be that I can totally see why audiences wanted to see this, what the attraction was... It really is a remarkable experience. But I hope all those visitors kept their voices down and resisted the urge to touch anything.
posted by OnceUponATime at 9:26 AM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Okay, so, I was telling my mother about this article and apparently we have a related family story.

This would have been sometime in the 1910’s or maybe the early 1920’s. There was a great-aunt who was delivered at home by a midwife out on the family farm. Great-Aunt Baby was premature, blue, and small enough to be held with one hand.

The midwife did whatever it was they did to get circulation and breathing going when babies were born O2-deprived with no tanks and masks handy.Then they opened up the warm oven, put the baby in a blanket-lined, enameled metal dish pan, and stuck the whole caboodle in there (leaving the door open, of course).

The baby eventually thrived, grew, and lived to a ripe old age.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:36 AM on May 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

The midwife did whatever it was they did to get circulation and breathing going when babies were born O2-deprived with no tanks and masks handy.

Well, I can tell you what my grandmother, who was trained as a doctor in the 1920s, did when my sister was born blue and not breathing. This was at a suburban hospital in the mid-sixties rather than out in the country, but apparently they did not have any infant respirators available. So my grandmother had them bring a basin of ice and water, and she dunked my sister. Who promptly gasped, and then stopped breathing again. So my grandmother dunked her again. She did this for about 20 minutes until my sister's breathing got firmly established.

My sister grew up fine, so it seems to have worked. Though she occasionally argues that she would have clearly been a super-genius instead of merely very smart if not for that unfortunate accident.
posted by tavella at 11:18 AM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

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