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

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  981 ratings  ·  206 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
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published July 31st 2018 by Blue Rider Press
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Average rating 3.59  · 
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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: 5000-2019, lor-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 bo
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. ...more
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 Naz ...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 m
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, an
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audio-book, 2018
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.
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
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 respect ...more
Kristin Davis
Mar 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
I was a premie born 8 weeks early in the '70s. I had a whole team of doctors who saved me with the help of an incubator. If I had been born in the early 1900s, my parents might have carried me in a box to a Coney Island sideshow operated by Dr. Couney, because most doctors would have left me for dead. At a time when it was still an accepted practice to use whiskey as an anesthetic, Dr. Couney (who isn't an actual doctor) was saving 2-3 lb infants in his fairgrounds sideshow using an incubator se ...more
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 adult ...more
Melissa Bennett
Nov 27, 2020 rated it liked it
I first heard of the incubators at Coney Island in a fiction book I was reading. That book took place at Coney Island and kept talking about the incubator attraction. I had to look it up. That is where I found out about the amazing Dr. Couney and his side show attraction of premature infants in incubators. I had to learn more. That is where I found this book. The story of Couney is astounding. Here was a man who loved babies and believed in saving as many as he could. Since hospitals at that tim ...more
Vjera Thompson
Feb 12, 2021 rated it really liked it
Bizarro bit of history that I’d never encountered before. Thousands of premie babies saved in a side show at the fair?! The history was fascinating, from babies to fires to hospitals refusing to learn from it.

However, the writing was disorienting at first. At times there were way too many adjectives and at other times it seemed more stable. I eventually decided that she was deliberately using extra adjectives when describing history. For example: “Soon [he] would stride away from the cloyingly
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.
Jan 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Such a fascinating story! The author did a fantastic job cobbling bits of stories into a cohesive narrative and timeline. It was estimated that "Dr." Couney and his amazing team saved around 7000 babies in his shows. I wish we knew the stories of all of them!
Meg - A Bookish Affair
3.5 stars.
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
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was ok
Really interesting story but it was sooo hard to follow
Phil Smith
Aug 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
It is easy to assume that technical progress has always moved ahead in a linear fashion. Hospitals get a new technology to help patients, which starts out fairly primitive and then gets refined over the years. “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies” proves that this simplistic view is far from reality.

Martin Couney was a showman who saved babies’ lives. Dawn Raffel first introduces us to Couney on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, but
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
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 C ...more
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. ...more
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. ...more
Oct 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating read!
Michelle Spencer
Apr 06, 2020 rated it liked it
I spent the first bit of my life in an incubator. I was sick and struggling, and while I wasn’t as premature or as weak as many of the babies in Dr. Couney’s sideshow, I probably wouldn’t have made it without the medical care this man worked to normalize decades before I was born. That fact made so much of what was presented in this book hit soberingly close to home.

The thing that made me pick up this book was skepticism - who would let their sick and dying baby be put on display to a gawking pu
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 profes ...more
Dec 12, 2020 rated it liked it
I liked this book. I had never heard of "Dr" Martin Couney who designed neo-natal incubators for preemies, but hospitals were uninterested. So he took the show on the road, hired a barker, turned on the propaganda machine, and charged admission at Coney (once pronounced "Coony-y") Island and various US World's Fairs including Chicago, and saved between 6,500 and 7,000 preemies while also sponsoring as many people as he could rescue from Germany. This Jewish man was saving as many lives as possib ...more
Dec 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
A fascinating, but little-known piece of history. I’m glad someone wanted to research and write about it. I was totally unaware that infant incubators had been around since the 19th century, but hospitals simply didn’t use them. It took a showman who loved babies to get them popularized with the general public and accepted by the medical establishment.

Martin Cohn, aka Coney, aka Couney’s background in Europe was a little fuzzy, but he definitely wasn’t a doctor. And he didn’t invent the incubat
(NB: I read an ebook edition of this book; in in my copy, the narrative text concluded at 70% of the whole. The rest is largely notes. I'd like to further mention that, sadly, the formatting on my ebook copy was not great, and I had to keep turning the default CSS formatting on and off to get the text and the inline photographs to display correctly.)

A fascinating microhistory about a mysterious figure! I only wish there had been more substance to the story. Although Raffel does a fine job relati
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
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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, B

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