Trivia

Hard

Baby Incubators, Now A Staple Of Premature Infant Care, Were Pioneered Where?

Johns Hopkins University
Nazi Germany
In WWI Tent Hospitals
Coney Island

Answer: Coney Island

Incubators are now a staple of premature infant care. Over the last half century, millions of premature and at-risk babies have been kept at stable temperatures tucked safely inside their glass and plastic enclosures until their delicate bodies were ready to handle full exposure to the outside world. It’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t so intuitively protect premature babies in such a fashion.

Yet the doctor that first created and championed the incubator, Dr. Martin Couney, wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment and his incubators went unadopted. Undeterred by the failure of the establishment to see the value of the incubators and how critical they were to keeping premature babies alive, Couney took a very unconventional approach: he took his incubators to Coney Island.

Yes, that, Coney Island, the New York island famously known for amusement parks and delicious hot dogs. Couney’s plan was as clever as the incubators he had created. He approached the owners of Luna Park, a prominent amusement park on Coney Island, and proposed a plan. He would set up a sideshow filled with incubators to house premature babies. In turn he would charge admission and that admission fee would be used to cover the expenses of staffing the exhibit with caretakers and nurses so that the families of the premature babies could enjoy the care without expense.

Although it seems peculiar to a modern reader to put premature babies on display as a sideshow act in an amusement park, the arrangement saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of children over the decades Couney ran the program. In an age when doctors would simply tell the parents of premature babies “We sorry, there’s nothing that can be done,” frantic parents across New York City would hail cabs and rush their frail children to Coney Island where Dr. Couney used his innovative incubators and the curiosity of the public to help babies like their own.

Shortly before his death in 1950, the establishment finally came around, perhaps in light of how many babies his Coney Island project had saved, and incubators became a staple fixture in neonatal care wards across the country.

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