Monday, August 20, 2018

Dawn Raffel's "The Strange Case of Dr. Couney"

Dawn Raffel is a journalist, memoirist, and short story writer whose work has been widely anthologized. A longtime magazine editor, she helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine. She has also taught creative writing in the MFA program at Columbia University; at Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia; Montreal; and Vilnius, Lithuania; and at the Center for Fiction in New York. She now works as an independent editor and book reviewer.

Raffel applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies, and reported the following:
Applying the page 99 test to The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, we find an anomaly—which might be fitting since the book is itself about an outlier. From 1898-1943, Dr. Martin Couney ran sideshows where visitors could pay a quarter to gawk at premature infants in incubators—right next door to the sword swallowers and strippers.

The incubator shows were blockbuster attractions on Coney Island and in Atlantic City because people had no idea that tiny preemies could survive. And outside of the shows, they rarely could. Hospitals didn’t have the technology.

Although Dr. Couney’s European credential were fabricated, he was decades ahead of the American medical establishment, and his results were so good that most of the major New York hospitals were sending him their patients!

Dr. Couney liked to say he was making propaganda for preemies—proving again and again that they could and should be saved. One way he did that was by staging shows at world’s fairs, including those in Omaha and Buffalo. But he lost his bid for the St. Louis World’s fair of 1904. The officials awarded an incubator concession to a rival showman with insider connections. This man had no idea how to save preemies, so he hired a physician—who also had no idea how to save preemies.

Page 99 is a full-page photograph of the outside of the opulent-looking exhibition that the Humane Society [which attended to humans, not animals] would call a “charnal house.” Amid filthy conditions and overheating machines, almost all of the babies died. The gruesome spectacle gave doctors one more reason to dismiss the idea of using incubators in hospitals.

Martin Couney never gave up. He continued his lifesaving shows at the San Francisco, Chicago, and New York world’s fairs, as well as the boardwalks. He didn’t retire until 1943, when Cornell New York Hospital opened the city’s first comprehensive incubator station. But while his shows were swell looking places, none was ever quite as grand-looking as the “charnal house.”
Visit Dawn Raffel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue