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Healthcare Marketing – History from the Past “Incubator Babies” Exhibited at the World Fair in New York and Chicago as Side Show

Posted Dec 05 2009 10:50am
We talk a lot today about hospital and healthcare devices and marketing.  PBS ran a series going back in time about the birth of the incubator for imagebabies.  When you look at some of the links here, of course a marketing practice like this would not stand today, but babies were taken from their parents who needed care and were put in incubators, and were on display at the World’s Fair, in other words the babies were getting care, but also were participants in a side show of sorts.

Recently there was a reunion of many of the patients who were in these incubators and they were given a silver cup.  Dr. Couney was the brain child behind the marketing and creation of the program and you can read more here.  People paid admission to come and see the “babies” in the incubators.  After the various shows were over, the babies were returned to their parents when they reached what was considered normal weight ranges.  His first show was set up on Coney Island in New York.    There were some well known babies in some of the exhibits, such as the daughter of James Keeley, the renowned editor of the Chicago Tribune so this was not just a show for orphans or such. 

The Coney Island show attendance dwindled when a New York hospital opened their own premature infant station.  In 1939 babies were shown at the World’s Fair in New York  For more than 30 years Dr. Courney focused on “baby incubator” shows and the final was the World’s Fair in Chicago. 

PBS did an excellent video on the entire history and you can view the video at the link below:image

When you watch the video a reporter tracks back some of the history.  When you listen to the woman describe what happened to her, she was taken by the Chicago Board of Health to be exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago as she was under weight.  She was a preemie and put in a shoebox by the oven to keep warm.  The Chicago World’s Fair was almost cancelled as it occurred during the Depression with unemployment at record marks. 

The Baby exhibit was not in the technology area, but in the midway, the side show area of the fair and was run like a side show and had an exotic dancer booth right next to where the babies were.  The dancer was arrested 4 times during the show but the attention continued to bring viewers and once the show was over, well the baby exhibit was right next door.   When you listen to the critics who tried to shut the show down, it appears he had monetary backing as well as physicians to keep the show rolling, any paradigms maybe to how we function today? 

In the video the reporter also talks to a current day doctor and shows the incubators of today and discusses “shaky medical ethics”.  The shows did give local doctors access to see the incubators in the smaller cities.  He said Dr. Couney did not charge parents, it was being part of the show as the cost to the families was to be on display.  Each parent received a silver cup with the name of their baby inscribed.  The babies lives were saved no doubt and are here today to talk about it, again, the marketing and how this all came about was the ethical question.  Four years after the incubator area of Cornell in New York was opened, Dr. Couney closed his exhibitions. 

Again, I found this extremely interesting and again it shows somewhat of the same issues we work with today with ethics in healthcare and how to advertise for pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors, and so on. 

Some things in healthcare appear to still have the same and similar issues, how do we get the technology out there and respect the “human” and “private” side of healthcare and our battle today is still with devices, except ones that are a lot smarter and require a bit more of our time with participation, along with laws and regulations that help protect our privacy.  BD

"For the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair, Couney planned a major exhibit. The quarters were designed by Skidmore and Owings, architects for eight of the largest exhibits at the fair. A U-shaped structure was erected at considerable expense (the cost exceeded the original estimate because of trouble with pilings at the site -- a huge ash heap, known as the 'Corona dump,' in a tidal marsh near Flushing). There was a suite for Madame Recht and for Hildegarde, rooms for others on the staff -- including 15 trained nurses (Fig. 15), 5 wet nurses and their own nursing infants, as well as a cook and a chauffeur -- and a sumptuous apartment for the incubator-doctor himself (e.g., bedroom, living room, bath and a private garden).

The bright-pink colored building was decorated with a huge Della Robbia bambino plaque; long lists of the sites and calendar years of previous exhibits were displayed on the walls adjoining the entrance. One sign proclaimed that the exhibits had been seen by 1,500,000 visitors throughout the world, and in large letters, fairgoers were told, 'Once Seen Never Forgotten.' Physicians who visited the exhibit were treated royally; hospitality often included a lavish lunch or dinner with Couney at Henri Soulé's restaurant in the French Pavilion, the forerunner of the world famous Le Pavillon on East 57th Street in New York City. (Couney was a gourmet; he liked his gigot rare, accompanied by the finest wines.) On June 14, 1940, there was a reunion of the babies cared for during the previous season; 43 graduates were brought back to the exhibit.

Each set of parents was presented with a silver cup inscribed with the name of their baby, and a certificate signed by Couney and by Grover Whelan, the president of the fair; it declared that the baby gained a start on life at the incubator station. The 'vital statistics' of the two-year show were published in the Medical News columns of the Journal of the American Medical Association on Nov. 9, 1940....

The following article appeared in the New York Times on August 8, 1904:

Half A Million At Coney

Excursions Make Crowd A Record Breaker -- The Tiniest Baby

Coney Island entertained within its borders yesterday more strangers, that is, more people from beyond the confines of New imageYork than on any day this year, and it is likely that the crowd has never been greater on any day in the resort's history. A number of excursions were run to the Island yesterday from points in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington and other points, and more than half a million people viewed the wonders of the rejuvenated resort.

The beach was thronged during the day, and nearly all the big bath houses were forced to close up early in the day, as all their suits had been hired out and the rooms taken. 

Dr. Couney's incubators at Dreamland have now the smallest baby which has ever been received in any like institution and it is claimed that no record of a child of its size having lived over a few hours, exists. Dr. C. S. Patterson, brought the little fellow from Brooklyn yesterday. He was swathed in cotton and weight just 1 pound and 6 ounces, being 11 1/2 inches tall. It is too small to be put into the incubators and is being fed by hand. Frequent inhalations of oxygen are necessary to keep its little heart beating. Dr. Couney said yesterday that it had a very good fighting chance for its life.

Neonatology on the Web: Martin Couney, New York World's Fair, 1939-1940

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