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Martin Couney's Incubator Baby Exhibit
at the New York World's Fair, 1939-1940

"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 1939-1940 venture was a financial disaster for Couney. The overhead expenses were tremendous and 25% of the gross receipts had to be turned back to the authorities of the fair. The admission charge of 25 cents meant that he needed 700 customers a day to break even, and the incubator babies were now 'old hat' to the public. Couney's difficulties were not helped by the health department; there were frequent inspections and criticisms, and the inspectors projected a condemning attitude. This experience was a far cry from his past glories."

-- "Incubator-Baby Side Shows", by William A. Silverman, MD, Pediatrics 64(2):127-141, August 1979. Reproduced by permission of Pediatrics.
Photograph of Martin Couney from the New York Worlds Fair, 1939-1940.
Nurses with arms full of infants at the World's Fair, Flushing, NY, 1939-1940. The nurse in the center is Couney's daughter, Hildegarde (she died in 1956).
Letter from Julius H. Hess to Martin Couney, date uncertain but around the time of the Couney's exhibit at the New York World's Fair.
Outcome statistics from Couney's incubator baby exhibit at the New York World's Fair, page 1.
Outcome statistics from Couney's incubator baby exhibit at the New York World's Fair, page 2.
"Diploma" presented to parents by Martin Couney's "Incubator Baby Institution" at the New York World's Fair, 1939.
Engraved silver cup presented to parents by Martin Couney's "Incubator Baby Institution" at the New York World's Fair, 1939.
Detail of engraving on silver cup presented to parents by Martin Couney's "Incubator Baby Institution" at the New York World's Fair, 1939.

"Incubator's Class of '39 Lift's Cups to Old Times"

"In keeping with the current commencement and reunion activites at the nation's institutions of learning, it was alumni reunion day at the World's Fair yesterday for forty-one members of the "Class of '39" -- most of them under 1- year old. Their alma mater is Dr. Martin A. Couney's Baby Incubators, where last Summer they got a start in life following their premature births."

"No one was quite sure whether the "old grads" recognized the scene of their incubator curricula, although their occasional howls sounded very much like the reunion shouts of college alumni forty or fifty years their senior."

"When all the incubator alumni had gathered, each accompanied by at least one proud parent, belated graduation ceremonies were held, at which the now big and healthy babies received diplomas, signed by Dr. Couney and Grover A. Whalen, President of the Fair Corporation, and engraved silver cups."

-- The New York Times, June 15, 1940.


Coney Island Sideshow
Incubator-Baby Sideshows, from Pediatrics
A Patron of the Premies, from The New Yorker
Martin Couney's Obituary, from The New York Times, March 2, 1950.
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