May 27, 2020

A very popular exhibit in the Amusements Zone was the famous Baby Incubators run by Dr. Martin Couney. Dr. Couney, who wasn’t actually a trained doctor nor was named Martin Couney (he was born Michael Cohen and was a Polish-Jewish immigrant), had been taking care of premature babies for more than 40 years and, at the time of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he’d run similar exhibitions at more than 20 other expositions.

At the time, premature babies weren’t allowed in most hospitals and were relegated to the care of mothers and midwives at home. (NICUs were essentially created in 1950) Dr. Couney didn’t charge the parents anything—he charged entrance fees at his exhibits. A team of nurses worked around the clock and his wet nurses were required to follow strict rules; they were forbidden to smoke, drink, or eat certain foods which were considered injurious to their breast milk, like hamburgers. It is estimated Dr. Couney saved between 6,500 and 7,000 babies.

In We Came Here to Shine, my aspiring journalist character Max visits the Baby Incubators to do research for an article. That resulting article in the novel is an exact copy of an article that appeared in the August 22, 1939 issue of Today at the Fair. From that article: “The daily cost of maintaining a child in the incubators—the service is free to parents regardless of race, creed or color—is $9, and the time a child remains there may vary from two weeks to two months. There are 16 trained nurses working in eight-hour shifts and the most up-to-date scientific equipment for the preservation of human life.”

If you find this interesting, I recommend Dawn Raffel’s book The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, “the extraordinary tale of how a mysterious immigrant “doctor” became the revolutionary innovator of saving premature babies by placing them in incubators in World’s Fair side shows and on Coney Island and Atlantic City… one of the most astounding stories of modern medicine.” [note: fascinating video on Dawn’s website]

Photo credits: Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections


More World’s Fair Wednesday posts…