But the novelty of the incubators was both an asset and a hindrance: At a time when severely premature babies rarely survived, people were reluctant to financially back an experimental technology for their care—and their amusement-park prominence didn’t help the case that the incubators had a place in mainstream medical practice.
Even without financial backers, Couney did not charge the parents of the incubated babies for their care, instead funding the operation entirely with the money earned from admission tickets—10 cents a person in 1903, 25 cents during the height of the exhibition’s popularity, and 20 cents when it closed in 1943. It was enough to pay for the equipment, facility, and a staff of doctors, nurses, and staff, serving as early model for crowdfunded medical treatments.
In a pattern that would hold true with future reproductive technologies like in-vitro fertilization, many of the people who visited Couney’s incubated babies some voiced concern over they would develop into “normal,” moral people.
“They are good, normal, respectable people, all of them, I bet,” Couney said in a 1939 article in The New Yorker. “I get letters every year from people who their parents told them they were raised in my incubators. I never yet got a letter from a jail.” (The article also noted that “prematurely-born girls seem to get married as frequently as any other kind, and every year Dr. Couney receives about a dozen announcements of weddings of incubator alumnae.”)
The families of Couney’s patients did their part to help the infants when they handed them over. According to the New Yorker article, one Swedish family pulled the baby through the legs of its father’s trousers in order to imbue the child with the father’s strength; some Orthodox Jewish babies were given to Couney with a red string tied around the right arm, called the nachora bendel, while some Italian infants arrived wearing amulets to ward off the malocchio—both protections against the evil eye. An Armenian infant once arrived with a chain of garlic around its neck in order to “make it robust.”
Even without the superstitions, though, something was clearly working: At a time when most full-term babies weighed approximately six pounds, Couney declared that he had nursed thousands of three-pound babies back to health. Of the roughly 8,000 premature babies brought to Couney at Coney Island, around 6,500 survived.
Couney moved the incubator exhibit from Coney Island to Flushing Meadows, Queens for the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. At this stage, the incubator babies were competing for attention with such futuristic technologies as a talking-and-smoking robot, models of new cars, and an early television. But the success of Couney’s exhibit was also, in the end, its downfall: After nearly four decades on display at Coney Island, the incubators no longer seemed like the cutting edge of medical treatment. By 1939, mainstream medicine had started to adopt Couney’s methods in regular clinical practice. In 1943, he closed his Coney Island exhibit, declaring his mission accomplished.
“All my life,” he said, “I have been making propaganda for the proper care of preemies.”