Thousands of babies lives were saved because of one man’s idea to have premature babies in incubators as an attraction at Coney Island. If you visited Coney Island in the early 1900s, you might have strolled down the boardwalk to get ice cream and enjoyed some 5 cent rides at Luna Park. You likely would have browsed the sideshows such as the Bearded Lady or the Sword Swallower or the display of premature babies sleeping in incubators! It may sound strange, but yes, premie babies in incubators were popular for decades at Coney Island. A man named Martin Couney came up with the idea to display babies at Coney Island when he first saw premature babies in incubators at the World’s Fair in Berlin in 1896. Couney knew people would pay to see adorable little babies, and he also knew it would save babies lives. He was fascinated with the care of premature infants because his own daughter, Hildegarde, was born prematurely. Seven years later, Couney opened the first display of premature babies in incubators at Coney Island’s Luna Park. He employed his daughter, Hildegarde, who was a nurse, and other nurses to tend to the babies. The premie babies were an instant hit! The pubic lined up to see the tiny babies sleeping in their incubators.
Premature infants were sent to Couney from all over the United States, and he never charged the parents for care. The proceeds of the ticket sales were used to cover all costs, and the babies were slowly nursed back to health while being admired by strangers. Couney was not a doctor, but he managed to save 6,500 babies throughout his life. One of the babies that Couney saved was Lucille Horn, who only weighed two pounds and was small enough to fit her dad’s hand. Her twin had died during birth and it seemed she would too, so her parents sent her to Couney. Horn said in an interview with NPR, “They didn’t have any help for me at all. It was just: You die because you didn’t belong in the world.” Horn had five babies of her own and lived to be 96 years old. Long ago, doctors laughed at the idea of using incubators, but after Couney’s successful work they began to take notice. Eventually, hospitals started using incubators to care for premature babies. Doctors and nurses still use Couney’s techniques to this day. About 1 out of 10 babies is born prematurely in the U.S., but thanks to Couney, premies now have a higher chance of survival.