Coney Island’s Baby Incubator, 1930s

As a historian interested in popular culture and public amusements,  I’ve always been fascinated in Coney Island lore. I am grateful that I was able to make it to Coney Island in the summer of 2008, right before it closed up for good. I got my bones rattled by the Cyclone, rode in a rusty gondola on the Wonder Wheel, shrieked on the haunted house dark ride, and traversed the boardwalk while eating authentic Italian Ice. I saw the painted murals for the freak shows, but sadly, nothing appeared to be operational (well except for the “Shoot the Freak” attraction, but this didn’t have an actual “freak” involved). It was wonderful to see and experience the things I have only read about in books, and viewed in photographs. So much of that world was gone by the time I got there though, and that will always make me sad.

Today I was taking a breeze through the incredible Coney Island History Project’s online digital collection, and found a ton of interesting artifacts from when Coney was in it’s heyday. Among them was a fascinating booklet authored by the Chamber of Commerce from sometime in the 1930s titled This Coney Island: America’s Incredible Carnival.  Aside from the fabulous vintage art and period photography, I was intrigued to see a mention in the guidebook to an attraction labeled simply “Baby Incubators,” next to a large ad for the Wonder Wheel. Huh? Whuh?!

Then I found this photo in their collection, which explains things a bit more:

Dr. Martin Couney

Beth Allen was born 3 months premature in 1941, weighing 1lb 10oz. Desperate to save her and with few other options – hospitals of the day had no facilities for premature infants – her parents placed her in the care of Dr. Martin Couney, a neonatal pioneer largely responsible for the now widespread use of incubators. Couney was also a controversial figure, a physician outside the mainstream who for decades operated his neonatal care facility as a 10¢ sideshow in Coney Island. In this interview, Beth Allen recounts her origins as an “incubator baby” and her family’s relationship to Dr. Couney.

According to other sources, Dr. Couney made this practice his entire career, as he exhibited premature babies at world fairs, expositions, and amusement parks from 1896 until the 1940’s. He was apparently the first American doctor to offer specialized treatment for preemiesThis article, “Incubator-Baby Side Shows” by William A. Silverman, M.D. gives some more details about Dr. Couney’s operations. Apparently he had simultaneous shows at both Luna Park and Dreamland within Coney. When Dreamland was devastated a huge fire, the babies were able to be rescued and transferred to the Luna Park facilities. Whew!

He really looks like a carnival barker in this early shot:



4 thoughts on “Coney Island’s Baby Incubator, 1930s

  1. hey, I was just tag surfing on WordPress and came across your wonderful post about Dr. Couney and the preemies. I actually work in Coney Island with the History Project– We have a FREE audio walking tour that you can download from our site. And we have a FREE seasonal exhibition center, too.

    I wanted to let you know Coney Island is still open–it was Astroland Park that closed in Sept 2008. Unfortunately the media coverage of the ongoing redevelopment hoopla has caused a lot of people to have the misimpression that all of Coney closed or is closing. Coney does not have one owner like Six Flags, but is made of many individual owners.

    Coney Island’s amusements reopen on Palm Sunday 2010–that includes the Cyclone, Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park (22 rides), Eldorado Bumper Cars, 12th Street Amusements, Coney Island Circus Sideshow, Dreamland Roller Rink, and much more. We expect more new rides will be coming to the former Astroland site for summer 2010. See you on the Cyclone line!

  2. Hi Tricia,
    Thanks so much for the wonderful comment, and for checking out my post! I’m so happy to hear that I was incorrect about Coney Island totally closing down. When I visited in August 2008, my NY hosts told me Coney was for sure closing (with the exception of the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel). I live in Illinois, so I don’t hear about NYC news on a regular basis. I’m glad to hear that things are booming. I’ll be sure to check out your walking tour, and will definitely make sure I come back to the park when I make it to NYC next!!

  3. I just scanned your article on Coney Island and wanted to add some thoughts…My father’s cousin named Jimmy Onorato was general manager who ran Steeplechase Amusement Park until its demise in 1964…From what I have read is that a cartoonist named Walt Disney followed Jimmy around in the early 1950s to see the efficiency of how well the park was run..As you might suspect,he offered Jimmy the job of running as yet un-named amusement park in Anaheim Calif…Jimmy turned him down..By all accounts, Jimmy was a wise and expert manager for Steeplechase Park which was owned by the Tilyou family…In my opinion, the Tilyous were a cheap ungrateful bunch who did not recognize the talents in Jimmy Onorato and should have made him a partner…Jimmy died a few short years after the park was closed/demolished to make way for low income housing which were never built…Ironically, his son Michael is a renowned historical expert in the history of Coney Island and is retired now, but he lived not too far from Disneyland which his father declined the offer from Walt Disney to run..

  4. It may seem silly, but I just want to say thank you to Dr. Couney… Even though I know he won’t ever know how wonderful of a man I think he is; I just want to say thank you. Because of you and your dedication to saving preemies and creating the first baby incubators; my sister and I wouldn’t be alive today. We were both preemies; me born at 1 lb 14 1/2 oz and her at 3 lbs 12 oz, and thanks to his invention and the advancements in medical science (we were born in the 1980s), we’re still here today. Thank you Dr. Couney, thank you.

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