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Coney Island amusement park used to display premature babies to a paying public

Plus: Jane Goodall makes the ideal guest on Radio 3’s Private Passions with her undemanding music choices and chimp tales

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

I like Radio 4 — you can have it on in the background burbling away for hours and hours without taking in a word, and then there comes a moment when you’re making a cup of coffee and find yourself plunged into the story of how, during the first half of the 20th century, premature babies living in incubators were on display to the paying public at Coney Island amusement park. For instance.

Life Under Glass (Radio 4, Tuesday) was an intriguing little half-hour documentary, presented by Claire Prentice, about Dr Martin Couney, an American paediatrician who started off touring world fairs in the 1890s with his ‘infant hatchery’ and then from 1903 to 1943 established a sideshow exhibition at Coney Island, that ‘great whirlpool of joy…the world’s biggest barrel of fun!’ People would pay a quarter to peer in the glass-covered boxes at the world’s tiniest newborns. (The exhibition’s logo: ‘Everybody loves a baby!’)

The doctor made a lot of money and had a big house in New Jersey with a chandelier, his great-niece informed us — but it also appears that, at a time when most hospitals did not think it worth attempting to keep such premature babies alive,
85 per cent of Couney’s charges survived beyond infancy and he saved probably 6,500 or so lives.


We met some of those babies. Lucille Horne was born on 16 May 1920, weighing 2lbs, and her dad whisked her straight out of the hospital into a taxi cab to Coney Island. And here she still is, alive and lucid 96 years later.

Norma Johnson and her twin brother were born two months early when her mother fell off the kerb. She weighed 2lb 7oz, her brother 3lb. There was no incubator at the hospital and so the physician said, the only way they’re going to survive is to take them to Dr Couney. ‘Do whatever you have to do,’ her mother replied. Norma couldn’t believe it when she and her brother were told: ‘Both of yous were in Coney Island on display.’

Dr Couney ran his incubator room like a hospital ward. There was a team of doctors, nurses and wet nurses, and a cook to ensure that the wet nurses had a good diet — no hot dogs and sodas. The babies were taken out of their boxes and cuddled a lot, as it was the doctor’s belief that contact was important. Sometimes the nurses would take the mothers’ wedding bands and put them round their infants’ wrists as bracelets.

That babies could be put on show brought accusations of exploitation, and Dr Couney would have preferred to have had his exhibition in a hall of science — but in an age of ambivalence about whether premature infants could or should be saved, he demonstrated with certainty that very often they could survive without any problems. The public were actually paying to keep the babies alive. ‘Thank god for Dr Couney,’ said one of the septuagenarians who owes him her life.

Radio 3’s Private Passions (Sunday) is muesli to Desert Island Discs’ cornflakes, and the primatologist Jane Goodall was a pretty ideal guest on it. Her stories about getting to know the chimpanzees of the Gombe National Park in Tanzania were fascinating, she has a distinctive take on things, and her choices were lovely and undemanding — Moonlight Sonata, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto — though it has to be said she sounded fairly downbeat about the state of the world. She is also unblinkered about chimpanzee nature: ‘Unfortunately, although they’re capable of love, compassion and actual altruism, they, like us, have a dark, brutal, vicious side.’ When bullying alpha males tried to prove their dominance by stamping on her, it was frustrating not to be able to explain: ‘I know you’re dominant, you don’t have to prove it — I know you’re eight times stronger than me.’

Michael Berkeley asked if she had tried playing music to the chimpanzees, and she said she wanted to design an experiment with buttons the chimps could press themselves (‘because chimpanzees learn quickly to use a touchpad’) to select classical, jazz or sounds based on their own calls. Possibly they should offer them a bit of Radio 4 chitchat too.


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