Doctors Gave This Preemie Zero Chance to Live. So Her Father Took Her to Coney Island, Where a Sideshow Doctor Saved Her Life.

How the pioneer of the incubator, a genius-but-bizarre-for-its-time invention, saved a generation of premature babies.

02_boardwalk_empire_coney_island_baby 02_boardwalk_empire_coney_island_babyNew-York Historical Society

Close to a century ago, New York’s Coney Island was famed for its sideshows. Loud-lettered signs crowded the island’s attractions, crowing over tattooed ladies, sword swallowers—and even an exhibition of tiny babies.

The babies were premature infants kept alive in incubators pioneered by Dr. Martin Couney. The medical establishment had rejected his incubators, but Dr. Couney didn’t give up on his aims. For 40-some years, starting in 1896, he funded his work by displaying the babies and charging 25 cents to see the show. In return, parents didn’t have to pay for Dr. Couney’s incubators, and many children survived who never would have had a chance otherwise.

Lucille Horn was one of them. Born in 1920, she ended up in an incubator on Coney Island.

“My father said I was so tiny, he could hold me in his hand,” she tells her own daughter, Barbara, on New York’s Long Island. They were interviewing each other for StoryCorps, a nonprofit that records and shares stories. “I was only two pounds, and I couldn’t live on my own. I was too weak.”

She’d been born a twin, but her twin died at birth. And the hospital staff told her father that there wasn’t a chance she’d live. “It was just: You die because you didn’t belong in the world,” Horn says.

But her father refused to accept that answer. He grabbed a blanket to wrap her in, hailed a taxicab, and took her to Coney Island—and to Dr. Couney’s infant exhibit.

She’d been born a twin, but her twin died at birth. And the hospital staff told her father that there wasn’t a chance she’d live.

“How do you feel knowing that people paid to see you?” her daughter asks.

“It’s strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right,” Horn says. “I think it was definitely more of a freak show. Something that they ordinarily did not see.”

Horn’s healing was on display for paying customers for quite a while. It was only after six months that she finally left the incubator.

Years later, Horn decided to return to see the babies—this time as a visitor. When she stopped in, Dr. Couney happened to be there, and she took the opportunity to introduce herself.

“And there was a man standing in front of one of the incubators, looking at his baby,” Horn says. “And Dr. Couney went over to him, and he tapped him on the shoulder.

“‘Look at this young lady,’ Dr. Couney told the man. ‘She’s one of our babies. And that’s how your baby’s gonna grow up.’”

Horn was just one of thousands of premature infants that Dr. Couney cared for and displayed at world’s fairs, exhibits, and amusement parks until the 1940s. He died in 1950, shortly after incubators like his were introduced in most hospitals.

At the time, Dr. Couney’s efforts were largely unknown—but at least one person will never forget him.

“There weren’t many doctors then who would have done anything for me,” Horn says. “Ninety-six years later, here I am, all in one piece. And I’m thankful to be here.”

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