‘The Strange Case of Dr. Couney’

‘The Strange Case of Dr. Couney’

Hoboken author to discuss how preemies were saved in sideshows

Visitors stroll past an exhibition of babies in incubators at the New York World’s Fair.
Visitors stroll past an exhibition of babies in incubators at the New York World’s Fair.

How does a European-born non-doctor become the (still actually non-)doctor who saved thousands of premature infants?

In a sideshow?

In Coney Island?

For real?

How does a novelist and memoirist turn historian to unearth and present this story?

Dawn Raffel, up till now known as the author of the critically well-received novel “Carrying the Body” and the equally highly thought of memoir “The Secret Life of Objects,” has written “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney.” It’s a story she stumbled across and felt compelled to research and then retell; she will be talking about it at her own shul, United Synagogue of Hoboken, on Sunday, as part of a tour of Jewish book clubs. (See below.)

Ms. Raffel first heard about the story after her father’s death, she said; she was sorting through his belongings and found something he’d written. He was not at all a writer, she said, but this composition was an elementary school assignment that for some reason he’d saved.

She’s originally from Milwaukee, she said, and that’s where her father had lived and where he died, but he’d grown up in Chicago, and the composition was about the 1933-34 World’s Fair there. (The better-known Chicago World’s Fair, the one in 1893, was featured in the best-selling true-crime thriller “The Devil in the White City.”)

Dawn Raffel

The World’s Fair in 1933-32 was held during the Depression, as Hitler started his rise to power in Germany; perhaps ironically, it was called the “Century of Progress,” and it was about “how technology will bring humankind to a better place,” Ms. Raffel said. As Nazi technology fueled the Holocaust and Allied technology led to the invention of the atom bomb that finally ended the war, “the idea was that technology was the driver of humanity,” she said.

Fascinated by this idea, Ms. Raffel started reading more about the fair, and she found photographs that showed incubators on the Midway.

Wait. What?

Incubators on the Midway. With real babies in them. Incubators that also could be found in the sideshows on Coney Island and Atlantic City.

And many of the babies in those incubators survived their premature births and the inability of the hospitals where they were born to nurture them only because of those sideshows.

Dr. Martin Couney — whose name was not Martin Couney but Michael Cohen, and whose medical credential was self-awarded — saved somewhere between 6,500 and 7,000 babies over the course of 40 years, Ms. Raffel learned. Among his other secrets — or at least not widely shared with public truths — was that he was Jewish.

Michael Cohen was born in Krotoszyn, Poland, in 1869; he died in Coney Island in 1950. In a time when all sorts of people were remaking themselves in the New World, he did that as well. But he also had a genuine passion — to save premature babies — and he figured out how to do that.

“He was a very complicated hero,” Ms. Raffel said. “He saved those children using any means possible. If that meant making up credentials, that’s what he did.”

Martin Couney holds baby Beth Allen at his Coney Island attraction.

When he began his work, Ms. Raffel said, “hospitals were under-resourced. There was a high rate of infant mortality. Women were dying in childbirth. And he was working in the shadow of eugenics, which was beginning to rear its head.”

Eugenics was the pseudo-science of improving the human race by breeding out undesirable characteristics while prompting those nubile young women and upstanding young men whose bloodlines were pure to reproduce. It was created with racist undertones (if not active overtones) and the Nazis greeted it with joy.

“By 1910 there were eugenic contests all over the country,” Ms. Raffel said. Those contests — called “better baby contests,” among other things — awarded prizes to babies for things like the shapes of their eyes or noses, as if they were calves or colts or piglets. At the same time, there were arguments in favor of letting less well-favored children — those who were weak or disabled — die. “The movie ‘The Black Stork’” — about the infanticide, on eugenic grounds, of a child born with syphilis — “was shown all over the country. Although the eugenics movement wasn’t targeting preemies directly, there was the idea of just letting them go.

“They were mistakes,” Ms. Raffel said.

“Dr. Couney was working against indifference. He kept saying that those babies could be saved, and that they deserved a chance to live.”

Dr. Couney took premature babies of all races and from all socioeconomic backgrounds, Ms. Raffel said. “Some of them were orphans, and some of them were the children of very wealthy people.”

Why would wealthy people send their babies to a sideshow? Because they got extraordinary care there, Ms. Raffel said.

A letter from Couney inviting parents of babies who survived in sideshow incubators to a reunion at the fair.

So, in a tent next to freak shows and wild rides and objectified exhibitions of indigenous people and wild animals, Dr. Couney set up a clean, carefully run, loving nursery, and he charged admission to sightseers and thrill-seekers so parents had to pay nothing for the lifesaving care their children received.

“He was decades ahead of the medical establishment,” Ms. Raffel said. “He insisted on breast milk. He paid for wet nurses when their mothers could not nurse. One of the hardest challenges for keeping these babies alive is feeding them, and they had a very sophisticated system for doing that.

“They used incubators.

“And they were immaculate. We have testimony from doctors who worked with him in the 1930s, and even in the 1970s they were saying that they had never seen a hospital as calm as the one in the side shows.

“Some of the babies did die, but the survival rate was between 85 and 90 percent,” she continued. “By far most of them survived. And we are talking about babies sometimes weighing less than two pounds.” Most would stay in the sideshow for a few months; they’d be discharged when they weighed five pounds.

“There were no IVs and no monitors then,” Ms. Raffel said. They had not been invented yet. “But the babies were fed constantly, and also they were big believers in touch.” So unlike children in hospitals, who were treated with dispassion and rarely touched, these babies were picked up and cuddled and were able to relax into the warmth of a human hug.

Dr. Couney and his wife, who was a nurse, lived on the premises. “They had a much lower nurse-to-patient ratio than you’d find in a hospital,” Ms. Raffel said. The Couneys had one child, and that child did not have children of her own, so there are now no direct descendants in the world, but about 10 formerly premature babies, now senior citizens, still are alive, she said.

Dr. Couney retired in 1943 —New York hospitals finally had begun to understand how to treat premature infants, so he was able to — and he died just seven years later.

Although Dr. Couney did not talk about being Jewish in public, “it wasn’t a secret,” Ms. Raffel said. “Like many Jewish showmen, he changed his name, and I don’t think that he went to services, and his wife wasn’t Jewish.

“But the town that he came from was one of the towns known as the publisher of the Jerusalem Talmud. And I came to think of Dr. Couney as the embodiment of the idea that if you save one life, you save the world.”

Dr. Couney saved thousands of very small lives, and in that way he saved thousands of worlds.

Who: Dawn Raffel

What: Will talk about her new book, “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney” at a book brunch

When: On Sunday, November 4, at 10:30 a.m.

Where: At the United Synagogue of Hoboken, 115 Park Ave.

How much: $18 for synagogue members, $25 for nonmembers

For more information or reservations: Call the shul at (201) 659-4000, email office@hobokensynagogue.org, or go to hobokensynagogue.org. For more information about the book, go to www.dawnraffel.com.

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