Dr. Martin A Couney was not your average physician. Born in Germany sometime around 1870, Couney was a pediatrician and a leader in the field of neonatology who invented the modern baby incubator. In the early 20th century, premature birth was one of the highest causes of infant mortality – in 1925, 36% of all infant deaths were due to premature birth.
Dr. Couney's own daughter was born premature and lived to adulthood under her father's care. After inventing the baby incubator, Dr. Couney faced skepticism from other medical professionals who did not believe his methods would work. Banks were unwilling to finance production of his incubators, believing that no hospital would want the devices. Couney set out to prove them all wrong.
Dr. Couney's first exhibit of premature infants in incubators was at the 1896 Berlin Exposition. A German hospital loaned him several premature babies, all of whom the hospital had determined would die. Couney, utilizing his baby incubator technology was able to rehabilitate each of the infants' lives. While Couney's intention was to demonstrate scientific advancements in the treatment of premature babies and to create a way to finance this technology by charging admission fees to see the babies, the small hospital drew big crowds. Visitors could watch the tiny patients as they received treatments, recuperated and grew.
Hospitals around the United States began to refer parents of preemies to Dr. Couney. Couney accepted patients at no charge to the parents and the infants were placed in the incubators and monitored by trained nurses and fed by wet nurses. By some estimates, Couney was able to rehabilitate 90% of the premature infants placed in his care.
Couney's baby incubator attractions were featured at prominent expos and amusement parks. The babies were also featured at Coney Island's Luna Park, and at a number of the World's Fair expositions including New York City's World Fair, the Omaha Trans-Mississippi Exposition, the Buffalo Exposition and the Chicago World's Fair.
In Atlantic City, the permanent infant incubator exhibit was located on the Boardwalk at Arkansas Avenue, across from Million Dollar Pier. The exhibit was in place as early as 1902. Admission at first was one dollar to see the infants and hear a lecture on their care. Later, the price was changed to whatever donation the visitor wished to make.
As more hospitals began to develop methods for treating premature infants, and as the field of neonatology became more accepted, Dr. Couney declared success and closed the exhibits in the 1940s. The Atlantic City exhibit closed in 1943. Dr. Couney died in March of 1950 at his home in Coney Island.
This ad for the infant incubator exhibit appeared in a 1920 Atlantic City Amusements Guide (H009.InfantIncubatorMay311920Amuseuments. Atlantic City Heritage Collections, Atlantic City Free Public Library).
"Young's Pier - Infant Incubators." Press of Atlantic City. 3 July 1905.
Jack Klein. "When Premature Babies were 'Stars' on Atlantic City Boardwalk." Annals of Southern Jersey History. 7 October 1979.
Amuseuments. 31 May 1920.
Local History Subject File - "Infant Incubator"