The Baby Sideshow: A History Of The Incubator

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Also called an “Isolette” an incubator is basically a clear plastic box. For a premature baby, this box is the next best thing to being inside it’s mothers belly. An incubator creates an artificial environment for infants who are too small or sick to maintain a warm enough body temperature for survival. Incubators also help protect an infant from noise, light and germs that may cause sickness and infections.

As a mother of a premature baby, I had a first hand experience at watching my daughter live inside an incubator for several weeks. It was truly amazing how many functions these boxes serve to perform and it just made sense that this is what should be done for a baby like my daughter who still needed the protection of growing inside me but was unable to have it. Shortly after my daughter was born, a friend of mine mentioned that she had heard that incubators were first used in carnivals to keep the premature babies alive and show them off to paying customers.

At first thought this seems crazy, horrible even inhumane! However, sometimes extreme measures have to be taken in extreme situations. As a mother whose one pound six ounce newborn was saved partly because of this invention I can only be grateful for the steps taken in order to get doctors and hospitals to take prematurity seriously and use these life saving devices.

This travel Incubator is used to transport babies between hospitals.  This is my daughter being transferred to a different hospital for surgery.
This travel Incubator is used to transport babies between hospitals. This is my daughter being transferred to a different hospital for surgery.

Once upon a time, and not too long ago babies were always born at home and after birth it was the mothers job to take care of the baby.  An infant who was born premature would get no special attention from a doctor and was often neglected by the family because it wasn’t thought to survive. 

It wasn’t until the 1950’s that NICU’s or Neonatal Intensive Care Units were established in hospitals to take care of sick and premature babies.  Even before that it was only in the 1930’s that incubators were set up in hospitals at all. 

The first incubators developed in 1860 looked like an old-fashioned stove and was similar to the incubators used for chicken eggs.  The main purpose was to keep newborn babies bodies at proper temperatures.  In 1889 a Doctor Alexandre Lion created an incubator made of glass that was see through.  He also adapted an automatic heating system for it so that it didn’t have to be constantly monitored and the babies could be cared for more easily. 

Unfortunately these incubators were extremely expensive and difficult to create, and hospitals could not justify the use of them.  Few people could afford it on their own and the care of babies, especially premature babies was still something that most doctors and hospitals did not deal with.  In order to build funding for his invention which was proven to increase premature infant survival rate to 72%, Dr. Lion started displaying the incubators with live babies as an exhibit.  They were put in store-fronts on busy streets throughout France.  The babies were displayed as a sideshow and people were charged admission to see them.  The incubators were advertised as “The Amazing Mechanized Mom”.  It may seem a bit appalling, however for desperate parents who wanted to save their baby it was free medical care and the best chance for survival.

In 1904 a baby boys life was saved at the baby exhibit at Coney Island NY.  He weighed 1 pound 6 ounces and was 11 inches long.  That is the same exact size as my daughter born in 2009.  (pictured above)
In 1904 a baby boys life was saved at the baby exhibit at Coney Island NY. He weighed 1 pound 6 ounces and was 11 inches long. That is the same exact size as my daughter born in 2009. (pictured above)

German doctor Martin Couney, a student of a student of Stephane Tarnier who had invented the first “oven like” incubator found inspiration in Dr. Lion and set up his own incubator exhibit in Berlin.  After the success of the exhibit he set out to London to continue the show.  In 1898 Dr. Couney brought the exhibit to America and by early 1900 the exhibits had become extremely popular. 

At Coney Island in New York, Dr. Couney ran his exhibit from 1904 until 1043 being the longest running act ever at Coney Island.  Dr. Couney was criticized often by his “Live Baby” exhibits and it was a controversial subject.  This however did not stop the Doctor/Showman from continuing his work and saving thousands of lives of small babies.  It also did not stop people from paying to see the babies.

In a way, this baby exhibit was more of an education experience than a freak show for paying spectators.  I for one had no idea that a baby born so early, weighing so little even had a chance of surviving until my own daughter was born.  It was more than a show, it was a mini hospital for sick and premature infants that just happened to be funded by people who wanted to see and learn more about these babies and the machines that were saving their lives.  According to statistics, before the use of the incubator the survival rate of premature infants was only 15% and it has now risen to 85%.  At Coney Island, Dr. Couney ended up saving roughly 6700 of the 8000 babies that were brought there. 
    
My daughter lived in the NICU for nearly 6 months before she was able to come home.  I went there to sit with her every single day and watched as the skilled nurses and doctors took care of her.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like to see her on exhibit at a carnival for any paying customer to see, although it may have been an incredible learning opportunity for some people.  As horrifying as it sounds to have put the pain and heartache of these little lives on public display for a price, it was necessary to save the lives of these babies otherwise left untreated by doctors and hospitals.  It was also necessary to prove that incubators worked so that they could eventually be integrated into hospitals and in the long run become a vital part of premature infant care.  

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Comments 11 comments

Ingenira profile image

Ingenira 5 years ago

Very interesting history on incubators. Glad to know that your daughter survived.


sdy53 profile image

sdy53 5 years ago

First very happy that your precious daughter is alive and well, and you really learned a lot about the incubators as evidenced by your informative article.


Georgia 4 years ago

Was one of the first babies in the Brookley Air Force Base Hospital to be placed in an incubator. I was due in December, was born in February weighing only 1 pound 2 ounces in 1951. They continuously told my family not to get their hopes up, that I would not survive--infancy, then toddler, then pre-school, then elementary, etc. I am now 61 and although not in the best of health, am better than many.


georgia 4 years ago

I too was born early sept 11 1951 27 weeks i was 2 1/2 pounds I would love to compare notes so to speak with you. my e-mail is jhappycamp@aol.com


4 years ago

I love this article. I was 10 weeks early born at 3.14 pounds witch is pi!


onlygrace profile image

onlygrace 3 years ago

Thanks to God, for the development of technology in dealing with premature baby born. Now even a premature baby can grow healthy and lives a wonderful life. You are one of the evidence =)


Stina Caxe profile image

Stina Caxe 3 years ago from Virginia Author

Thanks so much! I really appreciate all the feedback and personal stories.


jahanzaib 2 years ago

Very interesting history


BB 2 years ago

i too was born very early at 28 weeks and would love some more information for a school project please email me with some more information @ BowerB01@dowstu.catholic.edu.au


Sjc 2 years ago

Great article! My late father was a Couney Baby in 1921! He was 1 lb 10 oz at birth.


Elizabeth 11 months ago

I was born at home on Sept.28, 1950 weighing 1.17 oz at 26 weeks. My godmother and her mother delivered me. My father a basket case I am sure. With many prayers going up to Heaven mother and I were rushed to Los Angeles. We had a police escort my mother tells me and I was in an incubator. I finally gained 5 lbs after six months and went h0me.

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