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The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

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3.59  ·  Rating details ·  684 ratings  ·  157 reviews
"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."--NPR, 2018's Great Reads

What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? This is the spellbinding tale of a mysterious Coney Island doctor who revolutionized neonatal care more than one hundred
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Hardcover, 304 pages
Published July 31st 2018 by Blue Rider Press
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Average rating 3.59  · 
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 ·  684 ratings  ·  157 reviews


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Start your review of The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies
Diane S ☔
Jan 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: lor-2019, 5000-2019
What an unbelievable story. Babies in incubators as a side show at various world fairs, as well as Coney Island and Atlantic City. A time when infants born too soon and a medical establishment that had no way to keep them alive.Enter, this amazing man from Europe, a showman but a deeply caring man, a man who took the smallest of preemies and placed them in incubators. Stressing cleanliness, breast milk, holding and loving, and in the process saved 7000 children.

Not a linear story because the
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Melissa
Aug 18, 2018 rated it liked it
It was a fascinating story but it felt like a million little ends that never came together to make a cohesive story. I learned a few superfluous things about Dr.Couny but never really found out anything. I would get engrossed in a story, only to have it end abruptly leaving me questioning "was that it?" It left me wanting so much more information that I never got.
Tara
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Raffel has written a ground-breaking study that is both engaging and fascinating. A look into the life of Dr. "Couney," the unlikely forefather of neonatal care for premature babies. What might be dull in the hands of others reads like a good mystery with Raffel as the detective. It unfolds in layers of carnival happenings and scandals, subterfuge, WW II fallout, antisemitism, and brings to light a period in American history I knew nothing about--the horror of eugenics, which was a model for ...more
Stephanie Borders
Martin Couney was not a person I was familiar with prior to reading this book. In fact, I had given little thought to the existence of incubators and their use for premature babies, but the blurb of this book fascinated me. The idea of incubators being part of a side show at Coney Island and the like was almost unbelievable.

As I read more, my fascination grew deeper and deeper. The idea that doctors at hospitals would recommend new parents taking their children to an entertainment exhibit for
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Pamela
Jan 10, 2019 rated it liked it

Interesting, most definitely. Babies in incubators as menageries on display at Coney Island; Dr. Couney saving sickly and/or preemie infants in public view in deference to the medical community's scorn and disinterest in his invention.

Well written and cohesively constructed/plotted, however . . . not really. Too much, unnecessary toggling back and forth n time and place. Plus a good bit of filler makes it excessively lengthy.

Three *** Fascinating Micro History/Biography *** STARS
Jennifer Haupt
Aug 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-i-love
This is a fascinating true story that drew me into another time period, with interesting characters and a twisty plot that reads in parts like a mystery novel. Dr. Martin Couney saved hundreds of premature babies, caring for them in incubators at a Coney Island side show, the Chicago World’s Fair, and other atmospheric venues. I was shocked to learn that hospitals wrote these babies off as “weaklings” and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) care for them.

Couney was an innovative and compassionate healer,
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Christine
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, audio-book
What a fascinating part of history. I found this to be a compelling read and something I found myself thinking about well after finishing the book. The book was a bit choppy but it kept my interest and is a quick read. 4.5 stars
Melinda Borie
Jan 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A truly engaging tale from the early part of the last century, rooted in medical and cultural history with equal parts compassion and spectacle.
Katie
Aug 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Because of my many years of work at the Coney Island museum, I knew more than most about this weird little piece of history. Most people, when told about it get upset about the idea of babies on display as a sideshow attraction, but they always calm down when explain that Martin Couney managed to save the unsaveable - in enormous numbers, and was resourceful enough to be able to have it be self-funding and extremely effective.
Dawn Raffel's enjoyment of following little research wormholes comes
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Daisy Hickman
Jul 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Anxiously awaiting the July 31st release of Dawn Raffel's new book! From her prior work, I'm certain it will be extremely well written and intriguing. The title and cover are exceptional.
Kate
Nov 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018-books
I picked this up to read for a pop-up book group in NYC sponsored by Book the Writer. As a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner, I was very interested in the story of how the littlest babies were saved around the turn of the 20th Century. I had heard of the side shows where babies were exhibited in incubators, but I did not know the story of how they came to be. Dawn Raffel's story of Dr. Couney's life is briskly paced and tells the story of an immigrant success story, from entrepreneur to almost ...more
Linden
Jun 18, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dr. Martin Couney, who apparently had not received any official medical training, ran his incubators for premature babies as a side show at several fairs across the country, including Coney Island. His wife Maye and another trained nurse, Louise, helped to care for the infants, whom the hospitals had either given up on or were unable to accommodate. He claimed the survival rate of these preemies was 85%, far exceeding that of the hospitals of the time; there were even reunions held for the ...more
Sabeeha Rehman
Oct 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What an amazing story! Dr. Couney took it upon himself to create an incubator, when the medical establishment had not caught up to it, and take in babies, saving thousands of lives. Dawn tracks his history, goes through archives looking for the places and the babies, and finds them, now in their nineties. An remarkable life, and a remarkable discovery. Read this book and be in awe.
Morgan Leafe
Jun 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Such a great book! Cannot recommend it highly enough for all of my pediatric friends
Kristi Thielen
Dec 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Dawn Raffel’s nifty book is a look at a really unsung hero of the 20th century: Martin Couny. The good doctor (although he didn’t actually have a medical degree) was part showman, part entrepreneur and something of a flim-flam man at the outer edges. But within, he was a good-hearted visionary who saw how incubators could be the salvation of premature infants.

He didn’t invent the incubator – and how it came to be and was refined is a convoluted story – but he found the best kind to use and the
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M.K.B. Graham
Oct 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Dawn Raffel tells an amazing—and well researched—story of a momentous intersection of entertainment and the infancy of neonatal care. I appreciated the way the author stuck to the facts as she found them, revealing all of the uncertainties and hidden parts of the man's life. I especially liked that she tracked down and interviewed as many of the adults who had once been in "Dr." Couney's care.
Kim
Oct 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating read!
Jim
Dec 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
You **really** need to read "The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies" by Dawn Raffel. This guy came up with techniques and tools to save "underdeveloped" and "weakling" babies, who were frequently simply allowed to die because the doctors didn't believe they could be saved. While he had the self-given title of "Dr." there's no evidence that he ever attended medical school anywhere. He could not get any of the established medical ...more
Nancy
Sep 08, 2019 rated it liked it
I was "introduced" to and intrigued by this book after listening to a very interesting interview of the author on "Innovation Hub" with Kara Miller on NPR. I was a six-week early preemie in late 1950 at just around 3 lbs and spent weeks in an incubator, so the story of "Dr." Martin Couney and his sincere devotion to extremely premature babies, his development/improvement of turn of the 20th Century incubators and his team's assiduous care of the wee ones in his care - breast milk feedings, often ...more
Karen
Dec 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
3.5 stars. This topic was really interesting -- a baffling point in medical history that I had no idea about. Raffel is very much a storyteller, and she brings this piece of nonfiction to life. There is, unfortunately, a lot of filler -- my guess is that there's just not enough material here for a full book, though it definitely warranted going into more depth than a magazine article. A large amount of the filler still still ends up being interesting, helping make the time period more familiar ...more
Elizabeth Mabrey
Oct 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This is a fascinating subject, but I'm left with the impression that the author is still trying to get a handle on the doctor. Some of that is understandable, as there seemed to be a lot of conflicting documentation, some of it provided by Couney. He gave multiple names, multiple countries of origin, etc., which doesn't surprise me as a showman. Still, he seems hard to pin down, and I still don't think we knew much about him. There was no doubt his commitment to the babies in the incubators, and ...more
Art
Jan 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is the amazing true story of a freak show showman who displayed premature babies in incubators, saving nearly 7,000 and contributing greatly to the creation of neonatology medicine.

Dr. Couney (not a real doctor and not his real name) displayed babies in incubators at world's fairs and on the boardwalk of Coney Island and Atlantic City.

He gave them advanced nursing care, developed feeding methods and techniques that would later be used in hospitals.

At a time when hospitals did not use
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Jacqueline
Oct 03, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, audiobook
The subject of this book is fascinating. I can’t believe incubators for premature babies started as a carnival sideshow. Before it was accepted medical practice, Dr. Martin Couney and his nurses looked after babies doctors thought would surely die. They charged the parents nothing, and instead charged admission at Coney Island and various World’s Fairs for people to see these tiny infants. The babies survived (the book estimates almost 7,000 of them) and the parents took them home when they were ...more
Leann Mary
Nov 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Do you need to restore your faith in humanity? Do you have any idea how the medical community began using incubators and saving preemies? I picked this book up on a whim in Coney Island having some vague notion from the Sawbones podcast or Stuff You Missed in History podcast that they had babies in incubators at a World’s Fair. I had no idea how captivating the story actually was. For the first half of the 20th Century, while the medical establishment was heralding eugenics and failing to treat ...more
Phil
Oct 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
This story was a glimpse into medicine and daily life in the early 1900's. The medical community at the time was somewhere between the "You got ghosts in your blood. You should do cocaine about it" doctors and the "We'll have you scanned and download your medical results on this app" doctors of today. And it offered a peek at what childcare was like back then.

Coupled with the slice-of-life history of the world fairs, the story about showman/"doctor" Couney was engaging and kept me reading right
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Jen
Sep 05, 2018 rated it liked it
I was fascinated with the idea of this story. Dr. Couney was known for using incubators at the Coney Island circus exhibits and at the World's Fair. Instead of practicing in a hospital, Martin Couney worked with a team of nurses and assistants amidst rides, attractions and oddities at the fair.

It is estimated that he, along with his team, saved around 7,000 premature babies from using incubators. FASCINATING!

However, I didn't find the story telling as fascinating. I felt like though even
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Val
Aug 15, 2018 rated it did not like it
I gave up. The writer apparently had no interest in sticking to the thread of the story. In fact I'm not sure there was one. We start in 1919 and then bounce all over the place, from as far back as 1868 until almost the present. But in between we visit 1934, 1903, 1888, 1925, and probably more, in no particular order, without the slightest attempt to tell an even remotely linear story. And little (if any) effort is made to explain what the connection was to those years visited and the "Strange ...more
Eileen Stukane
Sep 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Eileen by: Discovered the book on my own
The Strange Case of Dr. Couney is both a great detective story and a fascinating piece of history that leads up to the survival of babies born today. We always hear the saying "One person can make a difference," and in the case of Dr. Couney, I feel that author Dawn Raffel shows beyond a doubt, why this saying is so true. I was drawn into the way the author took me along with her and drew me into the intrigue that surrounded this unusual human, Dr. Couney, who saved thousands of premature ...more
alphonse p guardino
Jan 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
I picked this book up on sort of on whim while browsing a local branch of a well known national bookstore. It then sat in my “too be read” pile for a couple of months. I’m glad that I had not read any of the online reviews first… they might have scared me away!

Is the book well written? Not really. In many ways it comes across as disorganized. Did that make it difficult to read? Not really. I still enjoyed the book.

The book is not a history of the development of neonatal care and pediatrics.
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Elise
Jul 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book follows the saga of “Dr.” Couney and his sideshow incubators, an incredible beginning for such an important device. The book itself was hard for me as a reader to follow, as it was not presented chronologically, going back and forth in terms of dates and events. However, just by reading the first few chapters, you can tell how well-researched the book is, and how much the author wanted to solve the mystery of the undeniably important, yet under-recognized, man that was Martin Couney. ...more
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Dawn Raffel's illustrated memoir, The Secret Life of Objects, was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Previous books include a critically acclaimed novel, Carrying the Body, and two story collections— Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division.

Her writing has been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, BOMB, New Philosopher, The San Francisco Chronicle, Conjunctions,
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