Baby incubators have been able to save hundreds of thousands of young lives and they can be found in hospitals all over the country. Incubators offer babies warmth, peace, and protection against outside allergens and germs during a time when their bodies are weak and need time to develop properly. The story of how incubators went from being used in zoos…to sideshows… and finally in hospitals is as fascinating and mind-boggling as it sounds. 

“The invention of the incubator itself was less significant than the development of a system to support the device”Journal of Perinatology 2000; 5:321-328.

The Zoo Sparks a Brilliant Idea:

Premature births were one of the leading causes of infant mortality in the early 20th century (“What is the infant incubator exhibit?). The story begins with Stephen Tarnier, a French obstetrician who was looking for a dependable means of warming newborn babies in an attempt to lower hypothermia-related complications. (Baker 322). While visiting a zoo, Tarnier noticed baby chicks resting in an incubator and a light-bulb went off in his head. If such a device works for animals, perhaps it could be useful for our babies as well.

His idea of baby incubators was not very popular at the start for a number of reasons. First of all, in-hospital deliveries did not become the general norm until the 1920s (Baker 325). Some believed that treating preemies was too expensive and was oftentimes unsuccessful.  An unfortunate number of people even held the belief that preemies, or “weaklings,” dying was a way to ensure that the babies who did survive would be strong future members of society. Even though being weak at birth has little to no direct correlation with a person’s level of personal drive and accomplishment, this way of thinking was not unheard of. Finally, banks were unwilling to finance the production of the machines because they were skeptical of both the necessity of it and the eventual popularity of the devices within hospital settings (“What is the infant incubator exhibit?). Great ideas cannot make a difference in the world if there is not enough infrastructure to produce and distribute the product, nor a public interest in witnessing the incubator’s potential to save lives.

“These puny, ill-conditioned babies crowd out welfare stations and hospitals; many of them die in later infancy…still others live on dragging out enfeebled existences, possibly becoming finally the progenitors of weaklings like themselves.”-(Baker, 325: West M. The prenatal problem and the influences which may favorably affect this period of the child’s growth. Trans Am Assoc. Study Prev Infant Mortal 1915; 6:219.)

Disappointed with the overall lack of interest, Tarnier decided to display the baby incubators at the Berlin World’s Fair in 1896 (Blakemore). It was at this event that Dr. Martin Couney saw the incubator for the first time. Having had a daughter who was born premature himself, he truly believed in the device. Attempting to overcome two large hurdles, a lack of public interest and funding, Dr. Couney took up a different approach.

A Popular Sideshow Attraction:

After seeing how fascinated visitors of the World’s Fair seemed to be, Dr. Couney developed a baby incubator sideshow attraction. By 1903 he had opened up two baby incubator exhibits in Coney Island with the help of his daughter (Blakemore). His team would accept babies from desperate parents and hospitals free of charge and would sell tickets to the general public to view the babies in their incubators (Blakemore). In this way he claims to have help save 6,500 babies before his death in 1950 (Blakemore).

People would pay to view babies in incubators. Here is an image of a viewing room where guests could stand and look into the incubators through a glass front. Image from Atlas Obscura.

By 1943 most hospitals saw the benefit of using incubators and were finding ways of acquiring them for ready use on their wards (Blakemore). That date also marks the year that the infamous baby incubator exhibits in Coney Island closed their doors. Today about 1 in 10 babies is born premature but thanks to advanced technology and care methods, most of these babies get to lead happy and healthy lives of their own.

Image credit: The New York Times.

Liked this? Check out my post about growth attenuation surgery HERE.

If that didn’t make you thankful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time

N.F.

Sources:

  • Baker, Jeffery P. “Historical Perspective: The Incubator and the Medical Discovery of the Premature Infant.” Neonatology. Accessed 5 January, 2021. Neonatology.org/PDF/7200377a.pdf.
  • Blakemore, Erin. “Baby Incubators: From Boardwalk Sideshow to Medical Marvel.” History. 12 September 2018. Accessed 5 January, 2021. History.com/news/baby-incubators-boardwalk-sideshows-medical-marvels.
  • “What is the Infant Incubator Exhibit?” The Atlantic City Experience. Accessed 5 January, 2021. Atlanticcityexperience.org/the-prohibition-era/incubator-babies.

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