Baby Incubators

The TransMississippi and International Exposition was the first display of Baby Incubators in the United States. The brainchild of Dr. Martin Couney, a specialist in the care of prematurely born infants, the baby incubators were shown at fairs and other exhibitions throughout the world.

Dr. Couney was born in Germany. He studied medicine in Breslau, Berlin and Leipzig. He later studied under Dr. Pierre C. Budin who developed a method of saving the prematurely born.

The baby incubators were first shown at the Berlin Exposition in 1896, and again at the Earl's Court in London. After the exhibit in Omaha he returned to Paris for the exposition of 1900. He returned to the United States for good for the Buffalo Exhibition. He exhibited his incubators at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and at the New York World's Fair in 1939.

Dr. Couney died in 1950. His obituary appeared in the New York Times on March 2, 1950.

The incubators were made by Paul Altman of Berlin. The incubator was warmed by a cylindrical "water boiler" mounted on the outer wall of the incubator and the infant's cabinet was ventilated by fresh air blown through a large pipe by an electric fan on the outside of the building. The air entered the incubator through a metal box attached to the side of each cabinet. The air was moistened by being passed through a layer of absorbent wool suspended over a saucer containing water. From the filtering box the air passed into the bottom and center of the incubator where it was diffused and passed over the surface of hot water coils from the external heater. On the top of the incubator was an exhaust flue which allowed the air to exit the incubator.

During the first Berlin exhibition, premature infants were acquired from Empress Augusta Victoria, the protectress of Berlin's Charity Hospital. The exhibit in England was almost a bust as he could not secure any infants from local hospitals. Couney was forced to go to Paris, where he was given three wicker baskets full of Parisian premature babies.

The incubators were an interesting attraction in Omaha. The Omaha Bee reported: "Incubators, that started yesterday, are attracting interest from the medical profession. They are glass and metal cases heated to a certain temperature, into which enough air is admitted to maintain life.. until such time as infant is strong enough for temperature of room. Yesterday two babies were put in... 85% of the babies using it have lived... intended for weakly born who otherwise would pass away. " (Omaha Bee 08/12/98)

In 1901, Scientific American extolled the "model nursery" and reproduced pictures from the Buffalo Fair. In 1904, a group of St. Louis businessmen formed "The Imperial Concession Company" for the purpose of exhibiting infants at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. With the onset of a hot summer an epidemic of diarrhea started among the babies. By September, the death rate reached 50%. A committee of local physicians was formed to investigate the exhibit. The St. Louis Courier reported that each infant cost the company about $15.00 per day. The exhibit was both a financial and medical catastrophe.

Couney continued to exhibit his baby incubators at various fairs and every summer he set up his incubators at Coney Island. Attendance dwindled and when New York Hospital opened a premature infant station as part of the normal hospital, he closed his operation.

Some sources and suggestions for additional reading:

Liebing, A.J.: Patron of the Preemies. New Yorker Magazine, June 3, 1939, p. 20
Commentary: The Use of Incubators for Infants. Lancet, 1:1490, 1897
Schenkei, S.:Infant Incubators. Lancet, 2:744, 1897
Silverman, A.: Incubator-Baby Side Shows. Pediatrics, 64:2, August 1979

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