Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Fake doctor saved thousands of infants and changed medical history

Posted by M. C. on July 26, 2018

The thread that weaves it’s way through this story is today the government would not let this happen. Not without a government school piece of paper and a government license.

And we know about licenses and permits.

By Claire Prentice

Nurses in starched white uniforms and doctors in medical coats tended to babies in glass and steel incubators. The infants had been born many weeks premature and well below a healthy birth weight. Stores didn’t make clothes small enough to fit their tiny, skeletal frames so the nurses dressed them in dolls’ clothes and knitted bonnets.

A sign above the entrance read “Living Babies in Incubators” in letters so large they could be read from the other end of the Chicago World’s Fair grounds, which took place over 18 months in 1933 and 1934. The infant incubator exhibit was built at a cost of $75,000 (worth $1.4 million today) and was painted in a patriotic red, white and blue.

The men in charge were leading Chicago pediatrician Dr. Julius Hess and Martin Couney, who was known across America as “the incubator doctor.” Couney was a lugubrious man in his 60s, with thinning gray hair, a mustache and a stoop, something he jokingly attributed to a lifetime of bending over babies. Couney and Hess employed a team of six nurses and two wet nurses…

Because of the sideshow setting in which he operated, Couney’s career had always been controversial. Many in the medical professional viewed the “incubator doctor” with suspicion, others with outright hostility. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had repeatedly accused Couney of exploiting the babies and endangering their lives by putting them on show.

None of the complaints was sustained, and by the 1930s, Couney was finally being taken seriously as a medical pioneer. Couney’s professional collaboration with Hess marked a key stage in his habilitation.

But while doing research for my radio documentary Life Under Glass, which is being broadcast on NPR stations around the country this August, and my book, Miracle at Coney Island, I made an incredible discovery about a man who has a claim to have changed the course of American neonatal medicine.

Couney never actually qualified as a medical doctor.

Throughout his career, Couney said he had studied medicine in Leipzig and Berlin. However, I could find no evidence of Couney (or Cohn/Cohen as he was known then) having studied medicine at a university in either city. To become a physician in Germany, one was required to write a thesis. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has copies of the German records: the librarians could not locate a thesis written by Couney…

Couney took in babies from all backgrounds, regardless of race or social class, a remarkably progressive policy, especially when he started out. He did not take a penny from the parents of the babies. In 1903 it cost around $15 (equivalent to around $405 today) a day to care for each baby; Couney covered all the costs through the entrance fees.

Presumably unaware that Couney was not a qualified doctor, pediatricians began coming to the fairgrounds to collaborate with Couney and study the babies in his care.

The distinguished Yale professor, pediatrician and child developmental psychologist Arnold Gesell visited Couney multiple times at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Gesell brought a cameraman with him to film the babies in Couney’s facility.

Interestingly, when Gesell wrote his book, The Embryology of Behaviour: The Beginnings of the Human Mind, he avoided any mention of Couney or the sideshow setting where he had carried out much of his research. By contrast, when in 1922, Hess wrote the first textbook on premature birth published in the U.S., Premature and Congenitally Diseased Infants, he wrote, “I desire to acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr Martin Couney.”

Of all Couney’s professional associations, his friendship with Morris Fishbein, the controversial president of the American Medical Association (AMA), is the most intriguing.

Fishbein was head of the AMA for 25 years and led the Association’s crusade against “quack” doctors. The two men were so close, Fishbein sent his aspiring medic son, Justin, to discuss his career with Couney in New York.

If he had been found out, Couney could have faced a large fine and a lengthy prison sentence.

Over the course of his nearly 50-year career, Couney took in around 8,000 babies, of whom he claimed to have saved around 6,500. While there is no way of verifying the numbers, pediatricians today acknowledge that the team of doctors and nurses which Couney assembled was highly skilled, ensuring the babies got the best care available in America at that time.

For this reason, Dr. Lawrence Gartner, pediatrician and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago believes Couney was an important figure in American medical history.

“I wouldn’t dismiss Martin Couney at all,” says Gartner. “Martin Couney was well-respected by the medical community at that time. His operation was highly respected and well-known to physicians.”

To his former graduates, Couney is a hero to whom they owe their lives. They talk of him as the only man who believed they were worth saving, and, crucially, who was prepared to care for them without charge…
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'Due to funding cuts, the Government has supplied us with its very own doctor!'


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