How Freak Shows Revolutionized Medical Care for Babies

Once upon a time, there was a place called Wonderland.

No, this is not a story about the mythical place created by Lewis Carrol. The Wonderland of this story was real. It was an Amusement Park in South Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The biggest attraction of this place of entertainment was kind of like a zoo. Visitors flocked from all over the country, willing to pay ten cents to see a freak show. The attraction was located in a spacious room full of glass boxes, where astonished spectators gaped at the exotic creatures inside.

What drew long lines of curiosity seekers to this exhibit? The glass boxes that housed the strange specimens were incubators. The inhabitants of the incubators were the rare, hardly-ever-seen endangered creature known as the preemie.

The Minneapolis Journal Wonderland coverage. Photo via Library of Congress’ Chronicling America

Wonderland’s exhibit, known as the Infantorium, was a sideshow devoted to the care and treatment of premature infants. The tiny children were on display as the stars of this unlikely freak show. As odd as this might seem to us, it was not the only place where it was happening.

It may also seem cruel and highly inappropriate to put helpless babies on display. It was in these exhibits, however, that cutting-edge medical technology was being developed. Because of this odd combination of entertainment and medical science, untold numbers of premature babies survived into adulthood.

The Infantorium, as it looks today.

For most of the first half of the 20th century, there were more incubators for prematurely born babies in amusements parks than there were in hospitals. Invented by Alexandre Lion, the Infant Incubator went on public display for the first time at the 1896 Berlin Industrial Exposition. It employed a sophisticated ventilation system and used hot water to provide consistent heat throughout the box. Aside from these features, it was not too different form those used on farms for incubating chicken eggs. The most radical design feature in Lion’s version was a large glass window that allowed easy monitoring of the occupant.

Prior to Lion’s invention, babies born prematurely rarely had much of a future. Doctors placed heated bricks in the baby cribs to help keep the children warm, but few held out much hope for survival. Before the use of the incubator, fewer than 15% of all preemies survived.

Martin and Hildegarde Couney with a young boy observe an incubator baby in the Couneys’ care. via New York Public Library Digital Collections.

One would think doctors and hospitals would have been the first to recognize the value of Lion’s invention. Oddly, they were less than impressed. They frequently gave lip service to caring for the tiny babies, but they did little beyond that. In 1901, an anonymous editorial made the rounds in medical journals, disparaging the incubators. The author offered the opinion that keeping “weaklings” alive only diminished the viability of the human race. The author complained that the incubator would allow premature babies to “transmit their deficiencies, deformities and vices” to the next generation.

One person who saw the value of the incubator was not a physician. Martin Couney was a Polish showman who believed the public would be willing to pay to see the spectacle of an impossibly-small living child.

Couney bought up incubators as quickly as they could be manufactured and incorporated them in fairs and amusement parks throughout the United States and Europe. Between 1896 and 1944, as many as 80,000 premature babies were treated in these sideshow attractions. Parents who wanted medical care for their children brought them to amusement parks, rather than hospitals, willing to put the babies on public display in exchange for any kind of hope for a future. In this time, the survival rate for preemies went from less than 15% to 75%.

Baby incubator exhibit at the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair

Couney claimed responsibility for saving 6,500 babies over the course of his career and boasted an 85% success rate. Even while this was happening, the medical community was slow to embrace the technology. At many of the fairs and exhibitions where Couney was caring for children, other exhibits were proclaiming the value of eugenics and the need to strengthen humanity by eliminating the weak, sick, and infirm.

An article in the May 29, 1905, edition of the Minneapolis Journal reported on the Wonderland exhibit:

Already there are two little patients reposing in the infant incubators and the exhibit was thrown open yesterday. Today several others, it is expected, will be added.

Dr. S. Schenkein, in charge of the incubators, who has been associated with Dr. M. A. Couney ever since the first exhibit made in Berlin in 1896, says: “We never have difficulty in getting all the babies that we can care for. We make no charge for the treatment, and any doctor, nurse or experienced mother, who will investigate, will be perfectly assured of the soundness of the theory of the incubator system for the saving of the lives of prematurely born children and of the intelligent care babies in our charge receive.

“The principle of the incubator is thousands of years old, viz., proper and even temperature. It can be traced back 800 years at least to the practice of the peasants of Silesia in placing weakly babies in bags of feathers, or in England, of placing such infants in ovens kept at a certain heat. Our invention is to provide a temperature regulated by a thermostat the works automatically. Sanitary precautions, good nursing, and nature’s food do the rest, so that we have been able to show by our records that 85 per cent of the children entrusted to our care live that would otherwise have died.”

By the time of the 1901 World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York., Couney had perfected his exhibit. A local medical journal reported that 52 babies were delivered to Couney’s care and that 48 of them survived. News of this breakthrough in neonatal medicine was overshadowed by other developments. It was at that event that President William McKinley was shot, resulting in his death eight days later.

It wasn’t until the Great Depression that incubators made the leap from amusement park sideshows to becoming a staple of neonatal hospital care. This happened when Couney found a sympathetic ally in Chicago physician Dr. Julius Hess.

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair hosted Couney’s premature baby exhibit, but this time it was with the explicit support of Dr. Hess. Hess’s credibility carried a lot of weight with his colleagues in the medical field. The Fair ran for two summers. In the second summer, it featured a reunion event where mothers presented their one-year-old children — all of whom had been saved by the incubators one year earlier.

Chicago became the first city in America to create public health policy specifically addressing premature infants. Dr. Hess gained the title of “The Father of American Neonatology.” The city’s success in incorporating neonatal care into its hospital system led other cities to get on board. By the 1940s, there was little need for parents to bring their little babies to amusement parks to get the care they so desperately needed.

Premature infants who were incubated at Wonderland Park, Minneapolis. Minnesota Historical Society, Collections Online : Photo Reproduction

The last amusement park to feature premature babies was at Coney Island, New York. In 1943, a New York hospital opened the city’s first department for premature infants. It was then that Martin Couney decided his job was done. His infant sideshow closed that year.

Couney died seven years later, penniless, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t leave a legacy. Today, an estimated 10% of babies in the United States are born prematurely. No longer viewed as stars of a freak show, they are the beneficiaries of Martin Couney’s 45-year career as an entertainer/medical pioneer.

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