Martin Couney was born in 1869 in Poland. He was interested in medicine, and studied under France’s expert in saving premature babies, Pierre Budin. Budin promoted the use of the world’s first incubators, and asked Couney to display them at the 1896 World Fair in Berlin. Couney told Budin that they would attract more attention if the incubators contained premature babies. The display, called “Kinderbrutanstalt” meaning “child hatchery” was a hit. Couney earned enough to pay for his passage to the U.S., bringing incubators with him. He was 19 years old.

• In America, he displayed the incubators with babies at Expos and Fairs before settling permanently at Coney Island, amid the roller coasters and hot dog stands. Here he remained for the next 40 years.

• For 25¢ people got a tour of the immaculate miniature hospital. A guide explained that coils heated from a boiler kept each incubator at the desired temperature using a thermostat, and the air was purified and exchanged every five seconds. Nurses on duty were encouraged to pick the babies up and cuddle them as often as possible, contrary to modern hospital rules which thought that touching babies might lead to infection. Couney believed that breast milk was superior and hired a number of wet nurses, as well as chefs to keep everyone healthy. He scoured area hospitals for preemie babies to fill his incubators, sending his own ambulance to collect them.

• Incubators were not commonly used at hospitals back then. The prevailing attitude was that there was no way to save the babies, so it was best to let them die. Monitors and IVs did not yet exist. Couney collected all the preemies he could find, regardless of race or economic background. He charged their mothers nothing for their care, financing expenses through admission fees.

Wolf Radio

Couney hired barkers to stand outside his exhibit, drawing customers in. One of them, Archibald Leach, went into show business under the stage name of Gary Grant.

• Couney set up a second exhibit at the World Fair in Chicago in 1933. Here he met pediatrician Dr. Hess, convincing him of the value of incubators. Hess helped turn the tide, advocating for incubators. Pediatricians began collaborating with Couney.

• During the World Fair, 1,250,000 people visited the incubators. When the police arrested Sally Rand, whose show was next to Couney’s, the fan dancer complained that the babies wore fewer clothes than she did, and nobody made a fuss about them.

• Because of the sideshow setting in which he operated, Couney’s career was controversial. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children repeatedly accused Couney of exploiting and endangering the babies.    None of the complaints was sustained, and by the 1930s, Couney was finally being taken seriously as a medical pioneer.

• The smallest baby Couney handled weighed a pound and a half (.7 kg). At one point, he had four infants weighing less than two pounds (.9 kg); all pulled through. Over the course of his nearly 50-year career, Couney took in around 8,000 babies, of whom about 6,500 survived.

• When Dr. Couney’s own wife, who had previously been one of his nurses, bore their daughter prematurely, the 3-pound (1.4 kg) infant spent the first three months of her life on exhibit in an incubator, and grew up to become a nurse helping her father.

• When Cornell’s New York Hospital opened the first center for premature infant care in the city, Couney shut down his show forever, retiring in 1943. He died seven years later at the age of 80. Couney had never become a doctor; he just played one on Coney Island.