The Mysterious Doctor Who Put Preemies on Display — and Saved Their Lives

YZM: What drew you to the story of Dr. Couney?

DR:  I stumbled onto this story when I was doing a little research on the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-34. This wasn’t the famous world’s fair that everyone thinks of, with the Ferris Wheel. This Depression-era fair was called The Century of Progress, and it was all about how technology would lift mankind to a higher plane. From the opposite side of the Holocaust, that notion was disturbing. While looking at archival photos of this fair, the infant incubator exhibition on the midway leapt out at me as a strange mash-up technology and humanity at its most primal. How could such an exhibit pass for entertainment? Who would allow their child to be exhibited this way? Later, when I realized this same doctor had run this show at Coney Island for 40 years, during which time, there was almost no available care in hospitals, that did it. I needed to get to the bottom of this. Why was the story not well known? Martin Couney was famous in his day, but many great stories from our past have been largely forgotten. And medical history has been mostly written from within the academy. 

YZM: Let’s talk about the boy who was born Michael Cohn; what was his early life like? 

DR: Oh, how I wish I knew more, but most records from his hometown of Krotoschin (Prussia, now Poland) have been lost. I know that the Cohns were assimilated Jews, and Michael was the last of four children. His father died young, and there is no surviving record of his profession, but there were many physicians in the family—it was in his psychological and genetic makeup. At the time Michael and many other Jews left Krotoschin in the late 1800s, they were not running from persecution but rather toward opportunity. To the extent that Krotoschin was famous, it was famous for being the home of the Bar Loebel Monasch Press, which published a well-known edition of the Jerusalem Talmud. In time, I came to view Martin Couney as a cockeyed embodiment of Sanhedrin 4:5: ”If one saves a single life, it is as if one has saved the whole world.”

YZM: You’ve stated that Cohn—now Martin Couney—felt that “you were better off keeping under your hat the fact that you were Jewish.”  Why? What kind of anti-Semitism did he experience? 

DR: It was entirely acceptable to be openly anti-Semitic in “polite company” at the time. As we know, a great many Jews changed their names—and certainly, if you were in showbiz, a moniker like Cohn had to go. Martin Couney’s family stated that the house in Seagate was in his (non-Jewish) wife’s name because the Seagate Association would not sell to a Jew. It’s not entirely clear to me, as his wife did come into an inheritance right at that time.

YZM: Do you believe Couney was an advocate for the mothers of the babies he treated—that is, for women? 

DR: Well, he was old-fashioned. He didn’t like women working when they were pregnant, and I wouldn’t call him a feminist. But during the Depression, he would help destitute women whose children were in his show by paying them to live on the premises as wet nurses. That gave the mothers a solid roof over their heads and a way to be with their infants. At the end of the summer, he’d send these women and their babies home with a nest egg. As for the show, the nurseries were run by the women in his life: His wife, Maye, who was an R.N., and a French nurse named Louise Recht were really in charge. 

YZM: Your research was extensive and far reaching—what were the high points? And the lows? 

DR: The high points came every time I found a woman whose life had been saved by Martin Couney—for whatever reason, all the living survivors were women, except for one man who didn’t want to talk. (His wife had just passed away. I don’t think declining to be interviewed had anything to do with the subject matter; he just didn’t want to talk.) Not one woman had any ambivalence about having been in a sideshow. As far as they were concerned, this man had saved their life, end of story. As for the fact that people had paid admission to see them, they thought it was kind of cool! I loved meeting these women and hearing their stories, and frankly, their enthusiasm helped me keep going when I was hitting walls. The low points were the frustrations of trying to track down the truth about this very elusive man who kept scant records and fabricated freely. His daughter, Hildegarde, left a gift: It was in her will that I found her father’s official certificate of name change from Cohn to Couney in 1903. There was no legal reason for that piece of paper to be in her will. It was there because she wanted someone, someday to find it, and it gave me chill, as if we had made a connection across time and death.

YZM: You also write fiction; are the skills and tools of the novelist and short story writer useful in writing non-fiction?  

DR: In one sense, yes. You need to tell a story, and you need voice, and an understanding of pacing — when to withhold and reveal information. You still want to engage and move the reader, and keep her turning pages. In fiction, you can allow the act of composition to take you down a completely different path than you’d originally intended. In nonfiction, you can only allow the research to redirect you. Your characters can’t “take on a life of their own” and surprise you, but newly discovered facts can, and do. This book has more than 600 archival endnotes, and they were just about the death of me!


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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.