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Fake doctor saved thousands of infants and changed medical history

When Marion Conlin gave birth to twins earlier than expected in a Brooklyn hospital in May 1920, one of her babies was already dead. Her doctor bluntly told the woman and her husband, Woolsey, “Don’t rush to bury that one, because you will need to bury the other one too . . . She’s not going to live the day.”

But Woolsey was not giving up on the other so easily.

The couple had honeymooned the previous year in Atlantic City, and Woolsey recalled a sideshow exhibit featuring prematurely born babies whose lives were saved right there on the Boardwalk. Resting in new machines called incubators, the babies made medical history while serving as a prime attraction for gawking tourists.

Woolsey also remembered hearing that the same doctor had set up a similar exhibit in Coney Island. So while their own doctor tried to convince them that all was lost, Woolsey grabbed his 2-pound daughter, ran from the hospital and hailed a cab, hoping the Coney Island sideshow could save her life.

A new book, “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies,” by Dawn Raffel (Blue Rider Press), tells the story of Martin Couney, a self-appointed “doctor” — his credentials turned out to be nonexistent — who nonetheless saved thousands of infants, and introduced incubators to the modern world.

What little is known about Martin Couney is that he was born in Prussia in 1869 as Michael Cohn and changed his name after immigrating to New York at 18.

He does not appear to have had any medical credentials, and while he often claimed to be a protege of the world-renowned French doctor Pierre-Constant Budin, who popularized incubators in Europe, there is no evidence for this claim.

What is true is that whatever his motive, he spent 40 years as the only medical hope for parents of babies born too early in New York City and beyond. Raffel estimates he saved between 6,500 and 7,000 lives.

Incubators were invented in Europe in the late 19th century, the evolution of innovations from Russia, Germany and France. Couney claimed that in 1896, Budin, an actual pioneer in the field, sent him to display incubators at the Great Industrial Exhibition of Berlin. Rather than stand next to empty machines, Couney, referring to the displays as “child hatchery,” said he realized how much more effective it would be if they housed actual babies being saved for the public to see.

The truth about where Couney first encountered these machines, and his motivation for making them the great cause of his life, is unknown. Raffel believes he did not attend the 1896 exhibition at all, but heard about it, and became associated with the machines soon after.

“The exhibition in Berlin made a big splash,” Raffel says. “It was written up in newspapers all over the place, including the United States, and showmen started becoming interested in it.”

However it began, Couney toured the machines around America and established a show in Coney Island in 1903, one block away from the Luna Park amusement park.

The exhibit ran in that general area for the next 40 years. Visitors were charged a quarter to view the babies, and the money went to their care.

As one might expect, people didn’t know what to make of the exhibit at first….[ ]

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