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The infantorium

I never knew this:

“At the turn of the 20th century, incubators for premature babies were widely available at fairs and amusement parks across America, rather than hospitals.

Infant shows were the main source of healthcare for premature babies for over 40 years.”

That was a tweet from HumanProgress.org which linked to a fascinating article at “99% Invisible”. Apparently it’s a podcast about “all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about”. I am usually too impatient to listen to podcasts, but if the accompanying articles are as revelatory as this one, I will bookmark the site. The article title is “The Infantorium”. It opens by describing a long-gone amusement park in Minneapolis called “Wonderland”:

The park’s biggest attraction wasn’t the roller coaster, or the dance hall, or the log flume. It was a sideshow called “the Infantorium.” Visitors would pay ten cents to enter a spacious room full of glass boxes that were incubators with tiny premature babies on display. But despite how weird this whole concept might seem today, this wasn’t the only place this was happening.

According to Lauren Rabinovitz, an amusement park historian, at the turn of the century, incubators for premature babies were widely available at fairs and amusement parks across America, rather than hospitals.

At that, many readers will wonder what sort of parents can they have been, to allow their own children to be shown at a fair when they were in peril of death? The answer is desperate parents who had no alternative:

Many parents of premature, at-risk babies pretty much had to bring their infants to an amusement park. And these infant shows were the main source of healthcare for premature babies for over forty years.

Very well then, but what sort of man makes a profit from this deplorable business? That, too, has a surprising answer. The leading exhibitor of premature babies was a man calling himself Dr Martin Couney. He got his start in London:

Unlike the other showmen, Couney’s show had more of a refined air. He hired nurses to hold the babies and feed them breastmilk. The show was a hit so Dr. Couney decided to give it a try in the United States at the Omaha World’s Fair.

[…]

Thousands of people paid ten cents each to see Dr. Couney’s incubator show. And parents from across the city brought their premature babies to Couney, hoping for a miracle. A local medical journal reported that 48 of the 52 babies delivered to Couney that summer had survived.

In the state of medical science as it then was, for such a high proportion of premature babies to live was little short of a miracle. So I see nothing wrong in Couney making a profit, as he did at first. Some may say, OK, maybe that was acceptable in the early days of incubator technology, but surely these baby-shows died off as soon as proper hospitals and doctors acquired incubators?

Nope. For decades most of the proper hospitals and doctors turned down the incubators which Couney repeatedly tried to donate to them for free.

Follow the link to see why. And this Christmas remember the name of Martin Couney, the charlatan and fake doctor who bankrupted himself saving thousands of childrens’ lives:

The babies in his care were more than four times as likely to survive into childhood. He took in babies of all races and classes, and he never once charged the families. Everything was funded by admissions. Money couldn’t buy better care — because there really wasn’t better care available.

15 comments to The infantorium

  • Paul Marks

    Yes, things (and people) are complicated.

    We must not be quick to judge. There is often a lot to consider.

    And people must be free to try different things – because the alternative is often much worse.

    Even the idea of “barber surgeons” is not medieval – I remember listening to an interview with a barber from upstate New York (still working at 100 years old) who remembered doing minor surgery when he started out.

  • In the 1840s, Semmelweiss noticed that maternal death was much more common in the hospital ward where medical students were taught than in the ward where midwives were taught. He realized that the medical students were coming in contact with all sorts of disease, while the midwives were coming in contact with pregnant women. He ordered the students to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated lime before examining the patients.

    In short, he was a pioneer of aseptic medicine. His patients were far more likely to live. Younger doctors approved, but the senior doctors in charge most emphatically did not. His innovations were accepted in Hungary, but not in other nations.

    As always, the people in charge don’t want change, unless they initiate it. It’s not just incubators.

  • William O. B'Livion

    Visitors would pay ten cents to enter a spacious room full of glass boxes that were incubators with tiny premature babies on display

    Thank god for television.

  • Ferox

    Not enough behind-the-scenes cash flow in free incubators, or in reasonable end-of-life care that just lets a person die with dignity rather than after running a gauntlet of pointless and ruinously expensive “emergency” procedures. Or in patent-expired flu treatments either, come to think of it. Is there an instance ever where the medical establishment opted for a inexpensive treatment over an expensive one?

    Some things just don’t change.

  • lucklucky

    Thanks, did not know this.

  • Even the idea of “barber surgeons” is not medieval – I remember listening to an interview with a barber from upstate New York (still working at 100 years old) who remembered doing minor surgery when he started out.

    A lot of what “Doctor Pimple Popper” does with the blue scrubs and surgical equipment used to be done by the barber surgeons. Why not? If you’ve got unsightly skin tags, lesions, boils or whatever then going to the guy who has fine steel instruments for his daily work makes sense (provided he uses disinfectant and doesn’t mix and match dirty instruments).

    Having to spend a fortune (or wait forever on the NHS) for an invasive and expensive medical procedures has resulted in a lot of people resorting to DIY surgery with pretty awful results. Don’t believe me? Look at the number of videos posted on You Tube!

  • bobby b

    “Don’t believe me? Look at the number of videos posted on You Tube!”

    They have people posting vids of botched DIY surgery on Youtube? I have a sort of mental running list of topics I’ll never pursue. I’m adding that one. Ugh. Right after “the four stages of leprosy.”

  • Snorri Godhi

    Very interesting history.
    So, hospitals did not get incubators for eugenic “reasons”.
    It would be interesting to know whether the widespread use of incubators has subsequently led to an increase in premature births.

  • Hayden Goseek

    I worked with the curator of the Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans who remembered that the best customers for his Leeches around the turn of the century (1900) were prostitutes, to treat bruises on their faces.
    When I became a RN (2000) we went BACK to using leeches for vascular surgery.

  • staghounds

    “The Lancet condemned the exposition as “an unscrupulous way to make money”.”

    As opposed to, say, “Pay me to operate on you or you will die”, which is a model of scrupulousness.

  • Sigivald

    ot enough behind-the-scenes cash flow in free incubators, or in reasonable end-of-life care that just lets a person die with dignity rather than after running a gauntlet of pointless and ruinously expensive “emergency” procedures. Or in patent-expired flu treatments either, come to think of it. Is there an instance ever where the medical establishment opted for a inexpensive treatment over an expensive one?

    You can order a DNR and “no emergency treatment”.

    But that’s not the default, not because Big Medicine Makes All Their Money From It (they do not), but because otherwise the next of kin can sue the hospital for “killing grandpa”, at least here in the US. Standard of care is standard of care, and you get it unless you order otherwise.

    (Britain’s flirtation with “just let people die when it’s more convenient” is … not something to emulate, I think?)

  • John B

    ‘… So I see nothing wrong in Couney making a profit…’

    Don’t doctors and nurses make a profit, or do they work for nothing?

  • Paul Marks

    Excellent point John B. And if you are not paying your doctor (if a corporation or a government is paying him or her) is that doctor really working for you? Or are they a bit vulnerable to demands to serve the “broader public interest” rather than your individual interests as a patient?

  • bobby b

    I like my doc. I pay him cash. He tells me things.

    Such as: “Masks? Maybe if you could duct-tape three or four N95 no-valves over your face. Maybe.”

    And: “Want to avoid problems with Covid? Lose some weight. Get some sun. Get the vax if you want, but I wouldn’t. I don’t exactly know why I wouldn’t, but isn’t that the point?”

  • Paul Marks

    bobby b – your doctor is a wise man, well worth the money you pay him.

    There is a lot of talk about the sacred trust between a doctor and an individual patient (rather the Collectivist “Public Health” model), but an aspect of that relationship was traditionally financial. If a healer got a reputation for not healing clients – they went elsewhere.

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