Told that his surviving newborn daughter would soon die just like her twin, William Conlin grabbed the premature child and, hailing a cab, fled. But he wasn’t going to the hospital, he was leaving it and heading to see Martin Couney who had no office but operated on the midways of carnivals and fairs such as New York’s Coney Island and Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress.
A sideshow novelty along with bearded ladies and brothels (yes, many fairs had “female boarding houses” back then) attracting tens of thousands of people, Couney exhibited “weakling” babies that would typically be left to die in hospitals. Instead he saved them through the use of a new and unusual medical device called an incubator. He was often quoted as saying “If we have a child for seven days in our charge we never lose it.” It wasn’t a boast, it was mainly true. Couney operated his Infant Incubator Company at a time where eugenics, based upon the idea that only the strongest, healthiest, smartest and best looking should survive in order to create a perfect race.
“In literature these babies were called ‘weaklings’,” says Dawn Raffel, author of the recently released The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies, by Dawn Raffel (Blue Rider Press $27), adding that Couney’s story was almost forgotten.
Indeed, Raffel, who grew up in Milwaukee, had only learned about Couney in passing when her father mentioned going to the Century of Progress and seeing the exhibit.
“I didn’t even know there was a World’s Fair in Chicago,” was Raffel’s first take away from their conversation. But she later became intrigued and after a visit to the Coney Island Museum embarked upon four years of research.
At first information was difficult to find even though Couney had been the main go to person for premature babies for 40 years. And even then, most premature American babies didn’t survive.
“If you weren’t a place where Couney had a show—and that was only in the summer—you were pretty much out of luck,” she says.
A positive turn in her research came about when Raffel learned about Lawrence Gartner, a highly regarded neonatologist and professor emeritus of pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago who called himself a Couney buff. In an interesting connection to Northwest Indiana, Lawrence’s wife Carol Gartner, another Couney afficianado, retired as a professor of English and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Purdue University Calumet.
Raffel also interviewed some of the babies, now grown up, who had been saved by Couney. Among them was Barbara Gerber, who was 80 years old at the time she spoke to Raffel and though living in California had grown up on Chicago’s South Side. Gerber and her twin sister, Joanie, were underweight when born. Joanie, at four pounds, was placed in an incubator at the University of Chicago’s Lying-in Hospital until she gained a pound and then was sent home. Barbara, at three pounds, was considered a goner and ended up with Councey where she spent three months. Health wise, Barbara prospered while Joanie suffered lifelong issues, dying at age 48.
A showman and possibly not a doctor at all, Couney made money by exhibiting premature babies in incubators to fair goes and used all sorts of marketing tricks to increase the crowds. One barker, hired to lure people in by yelling “Don’t forget to see the babies” would change his name from Archibald Leach and move to Hollywood where he became known as Cary Grant.
But Couney’s heart was in the right place.
Over the decades, before incubators, which were invented in Europe and widely used there, became commonplace in the U.S., Raffel says he probably saved between 6,500 and 7,000 lives. He also claimed that 85 percent of the babies in his care survived, with most deaths happening with 24 to 48 hours of their arrival.
“One doctor is quoted as saying he’d never seen a hospital as clean as Dr. Couney’s place on the Midway,” says Raffel.
What: Dawn Raffel talk, book signing and reading with award winning author Stuart Dybek.
When: 6 p.m., Wednesday, September 5
Where: Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL
FYI: (773) 752.4381; semcoop.com
What: Multimedia presentation and talk moderated by Donna Seaman
When: 6 p.m., Thursday, September 6
Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Public Library, 400 S. State St., Chicago, IL
FYI: (312) 747-4300; chipublib.org/locations/34