Today, our guest, medical historian Julie Anderson takes us to see premature
babies at carnival sideshows. The University of Houston presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
How did premature babies end up being shown alongside
Siamese twins and bearded ladies throughout the early twentieth century?
The answer is: what started out as a scientific exhibition turned into a public
display. Designed to educate doctors and the public alike, the science of
incubation became a public spectacle, with premature babies exhibited in
incubators all over the world.
Incubators were first used in Paris hospitals in 1880. The early designs were
based on those used to hatch and rear poultry. These incubators, which resembled
large boxes, held two infants who were warmed by a hot water chamber underneath.
Survival rates of the premature babies at the Paris maternity hospitals increased.
But how would other doctors find out about this new technology? The answer was to
exhibit the incubators at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896. Six incubators
were sent to Berlin with Dr Martin Couney, who persuaded the protectress of Berlin's
Charity Hospital, Empress Augusta Victoria, to provide premature infants for the
exhibit. Despite having little chance of survival, according to Couney, none of
This exhibition was so successful that it was repeated in London at the Victoria Era
Exhibition in 1897. British doctors were not enthusiastic about providing babies, so
Couney brought three baskets of premature babies from Paris. As many as 3600 people
per day went to see the incubated babies at Earl's Court.
Despite the success of the show in educating the public, critics felt that using
small babies in this way was wrong. In 1897, an editorial appeared in The Lancet.
It did not criticize the scientific nature of incubation, or question its use at the
Exhibition; but it did attack the way that the exhibition attracted public showmen,
who would use premature babies in incubators as an unscrupulous way to make money.
Premature babies were exhibited in many cities -- Buffalo, Chicago, Paris St Louis --
in the early part of the century. Martin Couney moved to the United States in 1903
and exhibited babies in incubators at Coney Island every summer. The babies were
exhibited without cost to the parents and, as incubation was expensive, many lives were saved. The shows
were very popular until 1943 when the exhibition was closed.
Incubation was vital for survival. As well as in exhibitions, these tiny infants
appeared in newspapers, their survival, it was reported, dependent on incubators.
Oxygenated incubators were used in the 1930s, providing an isolated environment for
By 1943 the era of premature babies in incubators on public display had ended. New
technologies in incubation in the hospital had replaced the marveling public. These
infant sideshows educated both medical practitioners and the public.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Julie Anderson is a historian of medicine at the Centre for the History of
Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester in England.
She has written on medical technologies and disability and war. Her book
Surgeons, Manufacturers and Patients: A transatlantic history of total
hip replacement is forthcoming with Palgave this month.
J. P Baker, The Machine in the Nursery: Incubator Technology and the
Origins of Newborn Intensive Care (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996).
W. A Silverman, Incubator baby Side-shows, Paediatrics, Vol. 64,
No. 2, (August 1979).
Some websites on incubators and their history:
Silverman's on-line article
Invention & Technology magazine article
New York Times article
A look at a modern incubator company.
Additional images of early incubators have been kindly provided by
UH Medical Historian Helen Valier, CLICK HERE TO SEE THEM.
Images on this page: Dr. Anderson's photo by JHL. Other images from the web are as follows:
Early incubator is a patent drawing. Source of photo of Couney's display at the 1933
Chicago World's Fair is unknown. The modern incubator photos are courtesy of
incubator manufacturer, Yon Don Enterprise Co., Ltd. The photo of the display at
the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo, 1901, is from Dr. Allen Silverman's excellent
site on the history of neonatology.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.