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Find your cheer on the Starbucks app today. Music And we continue here on Our American Stories. Dawn Raffel was a fiction editor for many years. Raffel's most recent book, The Strange Case of Dr. Cooney, how a mysterious European showman saved thousands of American babies.
Let's take a listen to this wonderfully unique American story. I spent about four years going down a rabbit hole of research to find out what was the deal with one of the strangest stories in American medical history. Early in the 20th century, if you were to go to Coney Island, the people's playground, also known affectionately as Sodom-by-the-Sea for its hijinks, or if you were to go to Atlantic City, which at the time was America's honeymoon capital, or if you were to go to, say, a theme park in Chicago or Minneapolis, you would pass an exhibit that would say, Infant Infant incubators with real living babies. And there would be a barker outside and you could pay a quarter to go see living premature babies being cared for in incubators.
So when I first stumbled across this, I thought, how is this even possible? Is this the most crazy exploitation of human life? Is this a commodification of babies? Well, it turned out to be even stranger than that. There was almost no care for premature babies available in American hospitals at that time.
So if somebody had a baby and a tiny one, two or three pounds, their best hope was to take the baby home and maybe wrap it in blankets, keep it warm next to the oven or the fire, and hope for the best. And often the best was not very good. Along came this man, Dr. Martin Arthur Cooney, who was behind all of these sideshows. Who was he? He claimed that he was a European doctor, that he had trained in Leipzig in Berlin. That would have been some of the best medical training in the world at that time. And then he was the protege of a great French doctor who was conveniently dead at the time that Martin Cooney was making these claims. And that he then came to the United States for the very first time in 1898 for the Omaha World's Fair to show this new technology, the infant incubator. Now his story becomes very odd because apparently, according to him, he was just seized with the desire to relocate across an ocean.
Seriously, why? Once you've seen Omaha, you can never return to Paris? I think I will give up my really prestigious institutional affiliation with one of the world's great doctors in France so that I can practice medicine on Coney Island next to the shoot-the-shoots and the alligator boy? Okay, it's not too much of a spoiler to say Martin Cooney really wasn't a real doctor. However, he knew how to save preemies and he was willing to do it when the medical establishment really couldn't and wouldn't do it.
So here's this guy who actually did pick up a European protocol. He hired fantastic nurses. And let me tell you, in a neonatal ICU, the nurses are always the secret sauce.
That has a lot to do with whether or not the babies survive. He had these great machines, the new incubators. He also offered the most meticulous care. Very low nurse-to-patient ratio. Insistent on feeding these babies breast milk only if the mother couldn't provide it, he hired wet nurses.
The premises were immaculate. He was a big believer in really loving these babies. Love them, hug them, show them real human care. This was very much at odds with anything that was available in hospitals for a long time. At the time, the hospitals really didn't have the resources to have enough equipment. They didn't have enough nurses. They didn't have enough space. Hospitals were sometimes not all that clean. They couldn't afford to hire wet nurses.
They would feed the babies formula that was not as successful. So here is this Dr. Cooney, fake doctor, saving children over the years by the thousands, desperately trying to persuade the medical establishment. And yes, admittedly, because this guy was charging admission to the public, he was becoming very wealthy himself. I don't really think he saw a conflict between doing good and his own personal self-interest.
There were people who faulted him for that. But he continued and you would think the medical establishment would catch on and say, hey, you know, here's this guy, he's getting real results. He's saving 85% of these children who should be considered pretty much doomed. However, there were a few things going on, one of which unfortunately was the American Eugenics Movement, which was really about taking the new science of genetics and using it to try to manipulate the human gene stock. It ended up in absolutely horrific abuses, including the involuntary sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans and the decision to sometimes deliberately withhold care from infants who had severe disabilities. And it didn't directly target premature babies, but it did cast a shadow over their prospects. There was really a sense of, you know, why do we need to care for these weaklings, these feeble babies?
We have more than enough hungry mouths to feed, the mother will have another child, and so on. So the resources were just lacking. Over time, Martin Cooney had one great friend in Chicago, Dr. Julius Hess. And Julius Hess was really everything Martin Cooney wasn't. He was a real doctor. He did have real credentials. He was very highly respected. And he began listening to Dr. Cooney, learning from him, taking his practices into the hospital setting, and desperately, desperately struggling for funding, struggling to get people to listen to him.
He published the first book on taking care of preemies in this country in 1922, in which he dedicated his book to Dr. Cooney. But something that really turned the tide was in 1933, at the bottom of the Depression, there was a World's Fair in Chicago. It's not the famous World's Fair that most people think of, with the Ferris wheel and that's featured in the book Devil in the White City. This was a Depression-era World's Fair. And Dr. Cooney and Dr. Hess joined forces to have a big incubator show.
It was right out on the Midway, with the sideshows and other Midway attractions. Meanwhile, in the Hall of Science, you had a eugenics exhibit, but the actual work of saving lives was happening on the Midway, and there was so much publicity for this particular show that it did begin to turn the tide. Chicago became the first city with a really unified public health policy in order to take care of preemies.
It would eventually become the model for the rest of the country. So, if we really want to look at it, there are many people beginning to believe that yes, you know, this phony doctor with the sideshow is actually the rightful father of American neonatology. He saved thousands and thousands of people. Some of them are still alive.
I've talked to a bunch of them. I will tell you, not one of them feels annoyed that they were displayed in a sideshow, not one of them feels like they were exploited in any way, and not one of them is irritated that he wasn't a real doctor. They feel only gratitude that this man saved their life, and they went on to have wonderful lives and have children and have grandchildren. Without Martin Cooney, they probably would not be here. So, we sometimes owe a debt to people who work really far outside the lines, and Martin Cooney is one of them. Another really interesting thing about Dr. Cooney is that when hospitals began introducing incubators, and it really became very widespread after World War II when American healthcare in general just got better and better, that first generation of preemies treated in hospitals with incubators, a great many of them very sadly went blind and they couldn't understand what was going on. And Martin Cooney by that point was already retired, but they did go to ask him, why is it that none of the babies you treated lost their eyesight?
And frankly, he really didn't know. Well, he wasn't a doctor and nobody knew why this was going on. The truth was the hospitals were pumping too much oxygen into the machines. That was causing the blindness. And Martin Cooney, although he pumped oxygen into the machines, it was never as much. And hey, he was a showman, so he would actually take the babies out of the machines and show them off. And because of that, because of that, their eyesight was preserved. So again, just a little piece of lost medical history, and I hope you enjoy this story. Thank you. And that was Dawn Raffel, and thanks Dawn for that really interesting story. And so much work is done outside the boundaries of whatever the establishment thinks in almost any field.
The Strange Case of Dr. Cooney, here on Our American Stories. When the world gets in the way of your music, try the new Bose QuietComfort earbuds, too. Next-gen earbuds uniquely tuned to the shape of your ears. They use exclusive Bose technology that personalizes the audio performance to fit you, delivering the world's best noise cancellation and powerfully immersive sound. So you can hear and feel every detail of the music you love. Bose QuietComfort earbuds, too. Soundshaped to you.
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