This Day in History – September 7th, 1888

September 7th, 1888, for the first time, a premature baby is treated in an incubator in America.  Her name is Edith Eleanor McLean and, though she weighs only two and a half pounds, she’s nursed to health at State Emigrant Hospital in New York in a 3-ft. square, 4-ft. high box called a “hatching cradle.”  That makes sense because the device, first used in France a few years earlier, is modeled after a chicken incubator being used at the Paris zoo.

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But incubators were not inexpensive and hospitals were reluctant to invest in them—in part because it was not the practice among doctors at the time to spend a lot of time trying to help what were known as “weak infants.” But a few French doctors came up with the idea of charging the public to look at the babies inside what was promoted as the “Amazing Mechanical Mom.”  Then, a German physician named Martin Couney went a step further–he created a preemie baby exhibit at the Berlin Exposition in 1896.

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Martin Couney

Some people attacked Couney, charging that he was exploiting children by displaying tiny babies in what critics saw as a sideshow of sorts. But Couney felt that not only did it provide an opportunity to show how technology could help premature babies, but it also was the only way to ensure that they were given a chance to live.  And the public lined up day after day to see them.

Inspired by Couney’s idea, organizers of the 1904 World’s Fair set up their own premature baby exhibit.  But unlike the display in Berlin, no glass separated the infants and the people watching them. Half of the babies died.

By then, however, Couney, who had moved to America, had arranged to create a preemie display at Coney Island. The attraction resembled a normal hospital ward, with babies, nurses providing specialized care, and the doctor looking over everything. People paid a dime to look through the glass at the preemies. The healthier and older babies were put in incubators along an open hallway, with a railing keeping the public back.

Over the next 40 years, many of the premature babies born in New York were sent to Coney Island, where they were treated, without any charge to their parents—the admission fee covered the cost.  More than 8,000 premature babies, including Couney’s own daughter, were cared for there, and 6,700 survived.

By the 1940s, most hospitals had come around to using their own incubators and the Coney Island exhibit finally closed. But it, perhaps more than anything else, advanced care for premature babies.  At the turn of the 20th century, only 15 percent of premature babies survived.  Now, more than 85 percent do.

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