A shocking and bizarre history of premature infant care in America.
Editor and journalist Raffel (The Secret Life of Objects, 2012, etc.) tells her story mostly as a biography of an implausible character, Martin Couney (1870-1950), whose claim to being a physician could not be verified. Premature infants are unable to maintain a normal temperature and may become too weak to eat. This was no secret, and by the end of the 19th century, inventive physicians, especially in France, had produced primitive containers designed to keep them warm. At the time, hospitals mostly served the poor, and doctors worked alone. Neither wanted these expensive new devices, so inventors promoted them in international exhibitions or as commercial entertainment. “At the Infant Incubator Charity at No. 26, Boulevard Poissonière,” writes the author, “Parisians paid fifteen centimes to see babies described by a reporter as ‘just big enough to put in your pocket.’ That same reporter stated that ‘like the bearded lady in the circus,’ the show was worth the price.” Raffel introduces her subject as a young promoter who secured London rights for Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee. After a profitable run, he sailed to the United States, where he operated preemie exhibits in fairgrounds and international exhibitions, with a permanent facility in Coney Island. In 1943, Couney’s final year of operation, Cornell Hospital opened New York’s first neonatal unit. Many readers will share Raffel’s admiration of Couney, who never charged patients and paid obsessive attention to diet and hygiene (unfortunately, rivals were not so attentive). Survivors loved him, and while some physicians denounced the commercialization of his project, others approved, and he is considered a founder of American neonatology.
The book’s title is no hype; this is a startling account of an improbable huckster who made his living promoting a lifesaving device.