Incubators, while standard in any hospital nowadays, were once untested technology. Their developers needed a way to prove their worth and get the word out. And that is how premature babies were put on display at Coney Island.
When it comes to medicine, people can't always afford dignity. Certainly they couldn't in the first few years of the twentieth century, when Dr. Martin A. Couney wanted to pursue his interest in working with premature babies. At the time, the babies had terrifyingly low survival rates, and yet there wasn't much special equipment developed for them. Incubators had been put forward before, but who had the time and the money to care for them? Couney, knowing that people liked to look at the unusual, liked their heartstrings tugged, and liked to think they were doing good, came up with an idea. He built an exhibit in which premature babies were displayed at amusement parks and fairs. He briefly implemented the idea in 1896, in Berlin, where they were referred to as 'child hatcheries,' crossed to the United States, where he toured fairs, and then found a more permanent home in the amusement parks in Coney Island.
The Baby Incubator exhibit started in 1903 in Dreamland, the more sedate amusement park on the island. The attraction resembled a normal hospital ward, with babies, nurses providing specialized care, and the doctor looking over everything. The only difference was that one side of the ward was glass, and all day long people paid their dime (or fifteen cents, as the years wore on and the prices went up) to troop through and look at the babies. The healthier and older babies were put in incubators along an open hallway, with a railing keeping the public back.
This was not a risk-free venture, publicity-wise. A disastrous early model of the exhibit, inspired by Couney's success but set up under a different doctor in St Louis, did not have a glass partition separating the incubators from the public, and during one summer sickness epidemic, fifty percent of the babies died.
The exhibit on Coney Island was a spectacular, and seemingly successful, affair. Outside carnival barkers (including a very young Cary Grant) pulled people into the exhibit. The sign over the entryway proclaimed, "All the World Loves a Baby." Any child who was prematurely born in the city would be rushed over to Coney Island to be placed in the exhibit, including Couney's own daughter, who spent three months there. Standards were kept high, and because of the paying customers, Couney never charged any of the parents a penny for the treatment their kids received - even with the cost of care per baby sometimes totaling fifteen dollars a day. There were a share of scares, though. The worst happened when Dreamland burned down in 1911, and all the babies in the exhibit had to be evacuated away from the fire, and a new 'hospital' built for them on-the-double in nearby Luna Park. Over time, the 'graduates,' of the program came back to visit Couney and look at the new crop. In 1939, towards the end of the attraction's run, an article in the New Yorker mentioned that a few of the male graduates became doctors themselves, and that, 'prematurely born girls seem to get married as frequently as any other kind,' - truly a testament to the power of incubator technology.
In 1941, the exhibit closed down. After forty years, people were used to seeing the phenomenon of baby hatcheries, and more importantly, a preemie hospital ward finally opened up in Cornell's New York Hospital. The whole venture remains one of the crazier chapters in scientific history. It also might be an inspiration for cash-strapped medical providers and patients. Would you endure being gawked at for a chance to try out a new, life-saving, and unbelievably expensive medical technology?