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the late 1890s, the Infant Incubator changed the way premature infants were cared for and viewed. Created by a Frenchman, Alexandre Lion, the Infant Incubator was displayed for the first time in the 1896 Berlin Industrial Exposition. His Incubator was designed after similar apparatuses used on premature farm animals or incubating chick eggs. The design used hot water to give the box consistent heat. It also had a carefully designed ventilation system.

These features were not unique compared to more rudimentary designs used previously. There was one notable difference that opened the door for the Incubator to take off unexpectedly. This Incubator had a large glass window to allow spectators to view the premature baby inside.

The World Was a Tough Place For a Premature Baby

According to the 99% Invisible before the innovation of premature incubators, “Doctors would place heated bricks in cribs and cross their fingers.” Even after the advent of Incubators, they were seen as too expensive by hospitals. Parents of premature infants needed an alternative care method that barely seems plausible in today’s society. Premature baby advocates began funding the devise’s use and treatments entirely on admission to view its practical use. In this time, the survival rate of treated premature babies went from 15 percent to 75 percent.

With the advent of the glass window to view the premature baby inside, a tenacious Polish man Martin Couney pioneered the use of the Infant Incubator as a paid attraction in fairs across Europe and the US. According to the Phillips community’s Alley Newspaper, between 1896 and 1944, 80,000 premature infants were treated in amusement parks and fairs in Europe and the United States. Couney’s most famous Infantorium, as he called them, was at one of the most famous and popular Amusement Parks of the early 1900s in the United States, Coney Island. Couney’s Infantoriums used a medical model as the attraction as opposed to a sideshow. The attraction focused on heat, ventilation, and nutrition. The baby’s nurses doubled as nursemaids and the importance of sanitary practices was stressed.

The Theme Park’s Golden Era

From the late 1800s to the 1930s, permanent amusement parks increased in popularity. American’s had an increase in leisure time, and Amusement Parks offered an escape from urban drudgery. At the same time, Trolley lines realized they could dramatically increase ridership by providing Amusement Parks at the end of their lines.

Night scene, Wonderland Park, Minneapolis, Minnesota Historical Society, Collections Online : Photo Reproduction

The Amusement Park provided a unique niche to provide equitable medical care. This care was based on capitalism but is hard to replicate in the United States Capitalism based health care.

Wonderland Amusement Park

One amusement park that offered a very popular Infantoriam to fair-goers was the Wonderland Amusement Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From a 1905 article from the Minneapolis Journal, the Doctor in charge of the premature infants, Dr. Schenkein, who studied under Couney, is quoted as saying:

“The principle of the Incubator is thousands of years old, proper and even temperature. It can be traced back 800 years at least to the practice of the peasants of Silesia in placing weakly babies in bags of feathers, or England, of placing such infants in ovens kept at a certain heat. Our intention is to provide a temperature regulated by a thermostat then works automatically. Sanitary precautions, good nursing, and nature’s food do the rest, so that we have been able to show by our records that 85 percent of the children entrusted to our care live that would otherwise have died.”

Nurse with an infant, Jessie Tarbox Beals (attributed), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was the amusement park’s main attraction. The appeal and novelty of seeing an infant “tucked up cozy and warm in little glass castles” was too intriguing to pass up the ten cents entry fee. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s harsh climate led to the Wonderland Parks closing in 1911. The structure that held the Infantoriam is the only surviving structure of the amusement park.

Wonderland’s Infantoriam still stands today as an apartment building, Image by Author

Martin Couney died in poverty in the 1930s. He also held no medical degree as his timelines for studying were easily debunked. Hospitals finally started adopting the infant incubator as standard practice. He had tried donating his devices to hospitals, they politely declined. He continues to be a controversial figure for both using babies as a sideshow attraction but also saving little lives and restoring hope to parents with nowhere else to turn.

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