“Step right up! See the incubator twins!”
Jane and Jean Harbaugh were born six weeks early. Each weighed less than four pounds. Back in 1934—the year of their birth—most premature infants did not survive. The girls’ parents sent them to an unconventional doctor named Martin A. Couney. Dr. Couney’s methods were not welcome in American hospitals at the time. So to save the tiniest of humans, Couney put them in a type of carnival sideshow. “What he did to save all those babies was just out of this world,” says Jane, “and thank God for him.”
Beginning in the mid-1800s, carnival hawkers at Coney Island invited crowds to see bearded ladies, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, exotic animals, and other oddities. In 1903, passersby heard about a new sideshow: “Come see the child hatchery!”
At the turn of the century, many medical experts didn’t know what to do with premature (born early) babies. Sadly, the helpless “preemies” usually died.
In France, newborn doctors were experimenting with a poultry box that kept newly hatched chicks warm. They believed the same kind of contraption could help premature babies. The new-fangled “incubators” had heaters and fans. They also added humidity to a baby’s environment.
Dr. Couney studied French methods. He wanted to share what he had learned about caring for premature infants. He tried to interest U.S. doctors in the incubators. But most didn’t see the benefits.
Couney decided on an outlandish way to save preemies. He took his baby boxes to Coney Island, a New York City amusement park. He opened a sideshow.
Outside, Couney’s building looked like other attractions. There were brightly painted signs and flashing lights. Hawkers hollered, “Don’t pass the babies by!”
Carnival-goers paid a quarter to see the tiny humans inside glass-and-metal boxes. Workers sometimes exaggerated the smallness of the babies by putting big clothing on them or slipping an oversized diamond ring around a tiny wrist. These tricks made for a better show—and kept patrons coming.
Inside, the exhibit operated like a real hospital. The setting was quiet. Dr. Couney kept a watchful eye on his mini patients. Trained nurses cared for the infants.
Couney never charged patients or their parents for treatment. The money he took in from the viewing public paid to keep struggling infants alive. The funds were enough for Couney also to pay his staff and himself. Records indicate that about 6,500 preemies probably would have died without Couney’s sideshow.
Couney was ahead of his time. His sideshow operated for more than 40 years before hospitals began using incubators widely. Today, Couney’s baby sideshows may seem distasteful or even ridiculous. But his exhibit was a forerunner of modern neonatal intensive care units, and his shrewd approach was a life-saving one.
(Photo: Northwest Herald via AP: Jean Harrison, left, and Jane Umbarger are twins. Nicknamed the “incubator twins,” the sisters were among hundreds of premature infants placed in incubators at the Century of Progress expo in Chicago in 1933 and 1934.)