Babies On Display: When A Hospital Couldn't Save Them, A Sideshow Did Among Coney Island's sideshows a century ago, one was different: an exhibit of premature infants. The show funded Dr. Martin Couney's pioneering work — and saved thousands, including Lucille Horn.
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Babies On Display: When A Hospital Couldn't Save Them, A Sideshow Did

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Babies On Display: When A Hospital Couldn't Save Them, A Sideshow Did

Babies On Display: When A Hospital Couldn't Save Them, A Sideshow Did

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That music means it's Friday. It is time for StoryCorps. New York's Coney Island used to be known for sideshows featuring tattooed ladies and sword swallowers. Ninety-five years ago, it was also known for its exhibition of tiny babies. They were premature infants kept alive in incubators that were pioneered by Dr. Martin Couney. The medical establishment rejected the use of incubators. Dr. Couney didn't give up, though. And each summer for 40 years, he funded his work by setting up exhibitions of his incubator babies. Parents didn't have to pay for the medical care. Many of the children survived. Lucille Horn was one of them. She was born in 1920. And at StoryCorps, she told her daughter Barbara how she ended up in an incubator at Coney Island.

LUCILLE HORN: My father said I was so tiny, he could hold me in his hand. I think I was only about 2 pounds, and I couldn't live on my own. I was too weak to survive.

BARBARA HORN: So the hospital didn't have anything to offer.

L. HORN: No, they didn't have any help for me at all. It was just - you die because you didn't belong in the world. So when I was born, my father was looking for a blanket or a towel to wrap me up in. And somebody said where are you going? And he said I'm taking her to the incubator in Coney Island. The doctor said there's not a chance in hell that she's going to live. He said but she's alive now. He hailed a taxicab and took me to Dr. Couney's exhibit. And that's where I stayed for about six months.

B. HORN: Do you know how your parents knew about the incubators?

L. HORN: They saw the exhibit on their honeymoon. You had to pay to go in, and then the babies would be all lined up.

B. HORN: How do you feel knowing that people paid to see you?

L. HORN: It's strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right. I think it was definitely more of a freak show, something that they ordinarily did not see. But I remember going when I was older to see the babies.

L. HORN: You met Dr. Couney, right?

B. HORN: Yes, he happened to be there at the time I went in. And I went over and I introduced myself to him. And there was a man standing in front of one of the incubators looking at this baby. And Dr. Couney went over to him, and he tapped him on the shoulders, and said look at this young lady. She's one of our babies. And that's how your baby's going to grow up. I remember he gave me a hug before I left. You know, there weren't many doctors then that would've done anything for me. Ninety-four years later, here I am, all in one piece. And I'm thankful to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That's 95-year-old Lucille Horn with her daughter Barbara for StoryCorps in Long Beach, N.Y. Dr. Martin Couney cared for premature infants on Coney Island for 40 years. He died relatively unknown in 1950, shortly after incubators were allowed into most U.S. hospitals. This conversation will be archived in the Library of Congress. And you can hear more on the StoryCorps podcast. You can get it on iTunes and at npr.org.

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