Buttle's World

20 July, 2009

Unlikely Savior

Filed under: Posts — clgood @ 6:32

Last night I happened to catch part of a History Detectives episode on PBS. It had to do with premature babies being exhibited as part of a sideshow at the 1933 and 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. (PDF transcript here)

At first, of course, the thought of a German doctor putting infants on display between Sally Rand and the freak show seems apalling. How stereotypical, I thought: A German. Fortunately they dug a bit deeper.

Until the middle part of the last century preemies had a very poor life expectancy. Most died in spite of efforts to keep them warm with blankets, hay, or being placed in shoe boxes next to stoves. Dr. Couney knew in the late 19th century that the new technology of incubators could save their lives.

But not only was the technology prohibitively expensive, most parents had their babies at home and didn’t trust them to doctors and nurses. So Couney faced a double challenge: To evangelize the technology and make it affordable. His solution was a brilliant example of how the free market saves lives.

Dr. William Silverman’s “Incubator-Baby Side Shows” Pediatrics 1979; 64:127-141. Dr. Silverman recounts the fascinating history of premature babies in incubators who were exhibited at World’s Fairs beginning in the late 19th century. An aspiring young actor named Archibald Leach worked as a barker outside one of these exhibits (“Don’t pass the babies by!”). He later acheived fame under his stage name — Cary Grant.

At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933-4, the premature baby exhibit was next to the midway where Sally Rand and her fan dancers were performing. When police raided Sally Rand’s show she protested that her girls were wearing much more in the way of clothes than those babies next door. The article has *wonderful* pictures of very tiny preemies with their parents, nurses, doctors; it also shows old incubators, and various caregiving techniques including a very scary picture of “nasal spoon feeding.”

Another interesting article is by Dr. Jeffrey Baker “The Incubator Controversy: Pediatricians and the Origins of Premature Infant Technology in the United States, 1890 to 1910” Pediatrics 1991;87:654-662. Dr. Baker explains why many physicians and parents at first rejected the use of incubators (developed in France) because they considered them to be unhygienic and because most parents (who gave birth at home) were reluctant to entrust their babies to doctors for hospital care.

However, I have an article from the San Francisco Chronicle of 1902 entitled “What Becomes of the Incubator Babies?” that is far more upbeat about the use of incubators. It begins: “Nine years ago one of the curiosities of the World’s Fair at Chicago was a baby incubator in full operation, taking care of a prematurely born baby, one of those helpless little changelings brought into the world alive and breathing, yet before its time. It was exhibited as a curiousity, a thing of wonder. Today, to raise a prematurely born baby without the assistance of an incubator would be like dressing a wound without antiseptic precaution.

While many in the press lambasted Couney’s exhibits, parents and doctors backed him up. Not surprising, when you consider that he saved the lives of hundreds of their children with a technology they could not afford.

Once hospitals caught on, Couney stopped the exhibits. How’s that German Doctor stereotype holding up now?


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