A controversial figure in the history of neonatology, Dr. Martin Couney made a career of exhibiting and caring for premature infants at world fairs, expositions, and amusement parks from 1896 until the 1940's. He claimed to have trained with Pierre Budin and was friends with Julius Hess, but remained outside the mainstream of newborn medicine until his death. More information about his career can be found in Dr. William Silverman's article "Incubator-Baby Side Shows" and its follow-up articles in Pediatrics.
||Presumed photograph of the young Martin Couney from the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, 1901.|
||Photograph of Martin Couney from the New York Worlds Fair, 1939.|
||A photo of the "Incubator-doctor" at the time of the New York World's Fair, 1939-1940.|
||A "Graduation Diploma" for a premie cared for at the Baby Incubaators Exhibit at the New York World's Fair, 1939-1940, signed by Dr. Martin Couney and his head nurse Louise Recht.|
|Another picture of Martin Couney taken in 1941. -- Coney Island History Project|
Continuing research has cast doubt upon Couney's background, but there's little question about the number of babies he cared for and the respect he enjoyed from physicians of his day, including the renowned pediatrician Julius Hess.
The letter below, from Julius Hess to Martin Couney, was discovered in the visitor's book for Couney's exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
My Dear Martin
Now that I cannot be with you in person may I be allowed to thank my "great teacher" in this wholly unsatisfactory way for your great contribution to me and the medical profession. Yours has not only been one of scientific leadership but equally important to progress a most ethical one in every respect, and you can look back on a life well spent.
May I add a word of deep and heartfelt remembrance of the years thru which I knew your Dear Wife and helpmate who for so many years was at your side. For Madame and Hildegarde my sentiments are those of deepest respect for them and their attainments as they so well know.
Again Martin may you live long and happily so that you may continue your great work in behalf of those so needing your help.
Couney's obituary appeared in the New York Times, March 2, 1950:
Martin A. Couney, Incubator Doctor
Dr. Martin A. Couney, a specialist in the care of prematurely born infants, who had shown such babies to the public for an admission price at fairs and other exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe for more than fifty years, died last night at his howme, 3728 Surf Ave, Sea Gate, Coney Island. He was 80 years old. "The Incubator Doctor," as Dr. Couney was informally known, was born in Germany, studied medicine in Breslau, Berlin and Leipzig, receiving an M.D., and later in Paris under Dr. Pierre C. Budin, noted pediatrician, who developed a method of saving the prematurely born.
At the Berlin Exposition of 1896, Dr. Couney operated an exhibit of prematurely born babies to show the Budin technique. The exhibit was a financial success, as was a second one at Earl's Court in London. In 1898 Dr. Couney paid his first visit to the United States and had an exhibit at the Omaha Trans-Mississipi Exposition. He returned to Paris for the exposition of 1900, but was back in this country for the Buffalo Exposition the next year, and then decided to remain here for good.
For years he had shows at both Dreamland and Luna Park, and the night Dreamland was destroyed by fire the babies were saved by a quick transfer to the Luna Park incubators, some of the lodgers doubling up.
Dr. Couney had one of his Baby Incubators attractions at the New York World's Fair.
He leaves a daughter, Hildegarde Couney, long associated with her father's affairs. His wife, Annabelle May Couney, died in 1936.
Martin Couney's business card.