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The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How A Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies (2018)

de Dawn Raffel

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1357206,492 (3.6)2
Biography & Autobiography. Medical. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML:"A mosaic mystery told in vignettes, cliffhangers, curious asides, and some surreal plot twists as Raffel investigates the secrets of the man who changed infant care in America.... It's a fascinating historical footnote, compassionately told." NPR

A New York Times Book Review New & Noteworthy Title

What kind of doctor puts his patients on display?


This is the spellbinding tale of a mysterious doctor who revolutionized neonatal care more than one hundred years ago and saved some seven thousand babies. Dr. Martin Couney's story is a kaleidoscopic ride through the intersection of ebullient entrepreneurship, enlightened pediatric care, and the wild culture of world's fairs at the beginning of the American Century.

As Dawn Raffel recounts, Dr. Couney used incubators and careful nursing to keep previously doomed infants alive, while displaying these babies alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and burlesque shows at Coney Island, Atlantic City, and venues across the nation. How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century migr became the savior to families with premature infantsknown then as "weaklings"as he ignored the scorn of the medical establishment and fought the rising popularity of eugenics is one of the most astounding stories of modern medicine. Dr. Couney, for all his entrepreneurial gusto, is a surprisingly appealing character, someone who genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients. But he had something to hide...

Drawing on historical documents, original reportage, and interviews with surviving patients, Dawn Raffel tells the marvelously eccentric story of Couney's mysterious carnival career, his larger-than-life personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of the fragile wonders that are tiny, tiny babies.
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Preemie incubators got their start as a sideshow act?! True story.
  settingshadow | Aug 19, 2023 |
The story itself is quite interesting - an early innovator in the incubation of infants who surprisingly was not a licensed physician. Likely Dr. Couney's success was due both to his ability to afford innovative infant care and also to his skills as a showman. While some might question his decision to display infants at World Fairs, few can argue with the fact that he afforded care without charge.

Nonetheless, the book dragged at times. I suspect it was a combination of lack of primary sources and that there was simply not much drama in the story itself.

An interesting but hardly compelling read. ( )
  la2bkk | Apr 26, 2023 |
This could have been good but it was all over the place. The organization of the chronology could definitely been better. And there didn't seem to be much to Couney's life, at least with what info was provided. I get that there isn't much known but there could have been information about the state of medicine especially in regards to women and babies at the various times in history. ( )
  pacbox | Jul 9, 2022 |
I came across mention of this book in Bookpage, a publication that I pick up at the library. Whoever wrote about it there made it sound intriguing so I put it on my TBR list.

Given our modern day success stories with preemies and low-birthweight babies and those who have trouble thriving, it might be hard to remember that there was a time when this wasn't known. There were a few people, Martin Couney among them, who saw the value of trying to save infants who most doctors of the time wrote off. It seems he had a pretty good success rate with the ones brought to him who survived the first 2-3 days. I'm not sure why doctors seemed so little inclined to adopt or at least adapt his methods. But, as they say, hindsight is 20-20.

The author became interested in this story after finding her late father's "autobiography" that he wrote at age 16 which mentioned him attending the "Century of Progress" in 1933 in Chicago. In researching that, she found mention of the attraction featuring live babies in incubators.

The book jumps between Couney's history and others's attempts (including the authors) to find the history. That can be a little confusing at times. The story was told in an engaging way and for the most part, it was a fast read. There are still some unanswered questions--and who knows if those will ever be answered. ( )
  JenniferRobb | Apr 24, 2021 |
The first chapter, about Couney, begins for no obvious reason in 1934, when Couney is sixty-four. That's not when the baby in the Prologue arrived. Then the story drops back to Michael Cohn (Martin A. Couney's original name) in Europe, his emigration to the United States, and information about earlier attempts at creating incubators. Then it proceeds mostly in order, interrupted by incidents about Couney buffs, including eventually, Dawn Raffell. I don't think these are well-handled; I often found them irritating, breaking up the Couney story just as I was getting interested. There often seemed no particular reason to switch narrative lines at any particular point. I finally looked up the reviews on Amazon, just to give myself some idea of whether it was worth continuing, because I was very tempted to quit. The story improved after page 60, but I still felt it could all have been handled better.

Raffell has also included a lot of tidbits of information about the times, including the eugenics movement, which favored allowing such children to die. The refusal of hospitals to adopt Couney's methods to save preemies, or weaklings, serve as a lesson that doctors are fallible. Occasionally, I wonder why such-and-such was included, but mostly they helped to recreate the times in which Couney lived.

I thought it could have been better done. ( )
  PuddinTame | May 13, 2019 |
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Nome do autorFunçãoTipo de autorObra?Status
Dawn Raffelautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
Booher, JasonDesigner da capaautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Hill, AmyDesignerautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Holt, ClaireAuthor photographautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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Chicago, 1934

Chicago had already sweated through one hell of a week, and today was only Wednesday.
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Biography & Autobiography. Medical. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML:"A mosaic mystery told in vignettes, cliffhangers, curious asides, and some surreal plot twists as Raffel investigates the secrets of the man who changed infant care in America.... It's a fascinating historical footnote, compassionately told." NPR

A New York Times Book Review New & Noteworthy Title

What kind of doctor puts his patients on display?


This is the spellbinding tale of a mysterious doctor who revolutionized neonatal care more than one hundred years ago and saved some seven thousand babies. Dr. Martin Couney's story is a kaleidoscopic ride through the intersection of ebullient entrepreneurship, enlightened pediatric care, and the wild culture of world's fairs at the beginning of the American Century.

As Dawn Raffel recounts, Dr. Couney used incubators and careful nursing to keep previously doomed infants alive, while displaying these babies alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and burlesque shows at Coney Island, Atlantic City, and venues across the nation. How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century migr became the savior to families with premature infantsknown then as "weaklings"as he ignored the scorn of the medical establishment and fought the rising popularity of eugenics is one of the most astounding stories of modern medicine. Dr. Couney, for all his entrepreneurial gusto, is a surprisingly appealing character, someone who genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients. But he had something to hide...

Drawing on historical documents, original reportage, and interviews with surviving patients, Dawn Raffel tells the marvelously eccentric story of Couney's mysterious carnival career, his larger-than-life personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of the fragile wonders that are tiny, tiny babies.

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