Thursday, December 1, 2022

Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine, by Claire Prentice (author), Coleen Marlo (narrator)

Brilliance Audio, ISBN 9781536689303, August 2017

For forty years, 1903 to 1943, Martin Couney, the "incubator doctor," both cared for and exhibited premature babies in an incubator facility at Coney Island. He also ran similar facilities at amusement parks and world's fairs around the US and in Mexico, London, Paris, and Brazil.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the medical profession considered it not worthwhile to try to save premature babies. It was assumed that even if they lived, they would always be weak, and not productive. Couney disagreed. He believed, based on an exhibit he may have attended in Berlin, and they one he ran in London, that most of these babies could be saved, with good incubators and good care.

Couney charged nothing to the parents of the babies, and funded his incubator facilities by charging admission to see the babies in their incubators. He hired highly qualified nurses and also wetnurses to care for the babies. The incubators pumped both heat and clean, filtered air to the babies. The established medical community doubted the value of incubators, and the value of trying to save premature babies. The fact that Couney was essentially putting the babies as well as the incubators on exhibit in amusement parks and fairs obviously created some negative reactions and harsh judgments. Yet no one who examined his facilities, his staff, and the care the babies received, as well as their survival rate, could doubt he was providing excellent care. As a result, hospitals, which if they had any incubators at all would rarely have more than one or two, and would send premature babies and their parents to Couney. As the years passed, he began to acquire real support from more conventional, and excellent, doctors, some of whom learned from him and in turn learn from their own incubator facility experiences and teach him, as well.

In his later years, the increase in incubators in hospitals and the breakdown in the economics that supported his amusement park incubator facilities, combined with an excess of ambition in his exhibit/facility in the New Yoik World's Fair, started to bring him down. His care of the babies remained excellent, but it was his wife, Annabelle, who had handled the business end. When she died, there was no one to put a steadying hand on the finances. Yet at the end, he also finally got the medical recognition he'd always wanted even more that the recognition of the popular press, being recognized with an award and a dinner by the American Medical Association.

The irony of this is that research by Prentice and others suggests very strongly that Martin Couney, who was born Michael  Cohn or Michael Cohen, and ran his London incubator exhibit before moving to America, likely never studied medicine at all. It's a really fascinating story, and Couney's well-run exhibits, even if they were in amusement parks and fairgrounds, effectively countered the view of both the medical establishment and the growing eugenics movement, that these babies were not worth saving. He helped to revolutionize neonatal care, especially in the US.

This is an absolutely fascinating story, and this review barely skims the surface.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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