On February 11, 2017, a 96 year old woman named Lucille Conlin Horn died in the town of Mineola, New York. There was nothing unusual about her death. She had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease and grew ill and died.
But the very fact that Lucille Horn lived at all, now that’s unusual. She was born premature in Brooklyn New York in 1920, a dangerous birth in those days. Her twin sister died almost immediately after she was born and Doctors advised the parents that her sister, Lucille, would follow her to death within a few hours. But she didn’t. She survived but barely. There was little doubt that she would probably die within the month, maybe even by the end of that week.
Desperate to keep his remaining daughter alive, Lucille’s father learned of a doctor named Martin Couney who put babies on display in incubators at a Coney Island sideshow as a mean to fund his research to keep the children alive. "(My Father) said, 'Well that's impossible, she's alive now. We have to do something for her.’ My father wrapped me in a towel and took me in a cab to the incubator; I went to Dr. ‘Couney. I stayed with him quite a few days; almost five months."
Dr. Couney’s practice was set up in Luna Park, an amusement park in Coney Island, in Brooklyn that opened in 1903 located on the north side of Surf Avenue on a site between 8th street, 12th street and Neptune Avenue. The park was mostly destroyed by a fire in 1944.
Couney accepted all children regardless of race, social class or faith, something that was almost unheard of at a time when America as dramatically racially and class segregated.
Couney, seen today as a pioneer in neonatology, would run the infant incubator exhibits (There were several across the US) for more than three decades because mainstream medicine saw no point in trying to save premature’s.
The medical establishment also a problem with incubators which they saw as more Voodoo than science.
Couney gambled that he could change that view by showing the public what the technology could do to save lives and the only way to do that was to display the machine and the infants it was saving on tawdry carnival midways and county fairs What the public display did was to enable Dr. Couney to never have to charge the parents of the children he cared for. The price for admission did that.
Oddly enough Couney was not a medical doctor.
He said that had studied medicine in Leipzig and Berlin and had been a student of Pierre-Constant Budin, (Below) a French obstetrician and founder of modern perinatal medicine. In his long career he made many contributions in efforts to reduce infant mortality including popularizing a technique known as gavage for feeding premature infants who were too weak to receive nourishment by conventional methods.
Aside from the fact that there is no evidence of any kind that Couney ever finished medical school, precious little else is known about him. His place of birth is vague. He was probably a German national, perhaps Jewish.
What is known, is that he immigrated to the US in 1888 at 19 years old meaning he was far too young to have been admitted to a German medical college, which was extremely difficult to gain entrance too. In the 1910 he was surgical instruments salesman and made claims that he actually invented the incubator, although that seems doubtful. By 1930, Couney was a practicing physician.
By the 1930s, the medical community had a change of heart and began to take Couney’s work seriously and by 1940, his sideshows were closed because incubators were finally becoming more widely used in hospitals.
Regarded a savior and Saint by the desperate parents he helped, it is estimated that in his career Dr. Couney successfully kept about 7,500 of the 8,500 children alive in his sideshows. By the time Couney died in 1950, incubators were included in most hospitals.
As for Lucille Conlin Horn, she became a legal secretary and married her boss, had three daughters and two sons. She finally met Dr. Couney when she was 19 years old and thanked him for saving her life. She is buried next to her twin sister.