Remember When Incubator Babies Were A Coney Island Attraction?

old luna park photo
Luna Park 1878-[1930?] (Photo by Brooklyn Visual Heritage)

Coney Island Hospital recently celebrated its annual reunion for children who were born prematurely and nursed to health by the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The images of thriving, happy children celebrating life made us recall another generation of preemies: those of the Coney Island’s somewhat controversial exhibit, Dr. Martin Couney’s “child hatchery” of the early 1900s.

Dr. Couney, a German immigrant, had studied under French doctor Pierre Budin, a pioneer in incubator theory since the late 1800s. Incubators were not accepted by the American medical establishment at the time, so Dr. Couney set up an two exhibits in Coney Island, one in Luna Park from 1903 until 1943, and another in Dreamland which lasted from 1904 until the fire of 1911, according to Coney Island History Project. Dr. Couney accepted all preemies regardless of families’ ability to pay, instead funding his work by charging visitors 25 cents to see the tiny infants.

Over the years, desperate parents brought 8,000 premature babies to Dr. Couney and at least 6,500 of them survived. Many went on to live extraordinary lives. One of Dr. Couney’s original preemies opened up to NPR earlier this summer about being granted a chance at life by the exhibit, and about returning to Coney Island years later to thank the doctor.

It’s worth a listen (you can also read the incredible story here):


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