When the idea for Miracle at the Sideshow began forming in 2018, I could never have imagined how personally the story of Dr. Martin Couney would impact me and my family.
On October 10, 2022, my son and his wife welcomed 34-week gestation twins into the world, Jack Thomas, and Eloise Mae. The first hours and days after their birth, they required assistance with breathing, maintaining their temperatures, eating by tube feedings, and many more of the very same practices Dr. Couney implemented in his groundbreaking work.
The day after they were born, amidst tears of praise and thanksgiving, I also said a prayer of thanks for Dr. Couney and the brave people who helped him pave the way for the very care Jack and Eloise have received. I have worked as an RN in the NICU, and although I fully believed it before the arrival of my grandchildren, I can now attest firsthand that these precious little preemie lives are truly miracles.
Just like nothing can really prepare you for the birth of your children, nothing can really prepare you for the birth of your grandchildren, either.
My heart has been blown wide open with astonishment, amazement, and unabashed, immeasurable love for these two precious children. My mind is absolutely flooded with hopes and dreams for them, with wonder and imagination about what their first giggles will be like… their first coos, first steps, first crawls, first amazement at bubbles and butterflies, books and bikes, pudgy hands wrapped around oversized crayons and matchbox cars, dress-up and hide-and-seek, first Christmas and Easter, and everything in between.
Already we see a bit of sass in Ellie’s feisty courage as she shows us daily that she is so much bigger than her birthweight indicates. And we see a sweet and precious peace about Jack and his love for naps.
This weekend I worked on updating the dedication page of my novel for Jack and Eloise. Of course the book is for them, and for all premature babies everywhere and their families. But Miracle at the Sideshow is much more than that. It’s a story of how one man with a seemingly impossible dream changed the world.
I had the privilege of being interviewed all about Miracle at the Sideshow by Liz Tolsma for her podcast, Christian Historical Fiction Talk. Click here or on the image to take a listen!
In the meantime, the following is a snippet of the rest of the story of how Miracle at the Sideshow came to be.
“Everyone loves a baby.”
Such was the common saying of Dr. Martin Couney, the man behind the institutionalization of the infant incubator at the turn of the twentieth century.
And such is the inspiration behind Miracle at the Sideshow: An Astounding Novel of the First Infant Incubators.
At that time in history, medical care for babies born prematurely was non-existent. In fact, with eugenics on the rise, premature babies were thought of as “weaklings,” and the majority left to die in their mothers’ arms. Attempts at saving them were looked upon as harming the human race with their “less than” genetics:
“The eugenics movement promulgated the idea that physically and mentally inferior people were far from being benign and interesting; rather, they were a danger…Human differences became medicalized as pathological—as ‘disease.’”Freak Show, by Robert Bogdan, p. 62-3
“Obstetricians didn’t have much time or inclination to fuss over ‘weaklings,’ and the nascent field of pediatrics hadn’t quite gotten to them. They fell between the cracks, where they died.”Dawn Raffel, Literary Hub, August 3, 2018
But not according to Dr. Martin Couney.
As a nurse who has worked in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), throughout my research I was amazed at the resemblance of modern incubators to those Dr. Couney used in the early 1900’s. From the warming and oxygen delivery systems to the methods of feeding premature babies, his inventions indeed paved the way for today’s care techniques that save preemies as young as 23 weeks gestation. As such, I had to write this story.
If you are interested in all the details behind this story, I invite you to visit this post to peruse more details and a selection of the most pivotal books I read during my research . They range from books about Dr. Couney to books about Coney Island and acrobats, the history of the sideshow and its marginalized “exhibits,” books about the foods and recipes common for immigrants of the time, and more.
I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that many may find the sensationalism and voyeuristic methods Dr. Couney used with the incubator baby sideshows off-putting, even offensive. I would ask that you keep in mind that this was a very different time than we live in today. Several books and articles in my research indicate that this was indeed the only chance premature infants had to live. This is also true for the people who were subjects of the “freak shows” at the time:
“For the most part, if these people were not making a living in the sideshow, they’d be dying slowly in institutions.”Carney Folk: The World’s Weirdest Sideshow Acts, by Francine Hornberger
“…the cultural undercurrent was clear—anyone imperfect, anyone who might grow up with an impairment wasn’t worth saving.”The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies, by Dawn Raffel, p. 159
While we may cringe at the means, exploitation was the only way some of the most marginalized people at the time could survive. To his credit, Dr. Couney never asked or accepted money from his infants’ families–and this despite the fact that a single incubator cost over one million dollars in today’s currency (https://maximumfun.org/episodes/sawbones/sawbones-baby-show/).
There are volumes I could write about all the things I learned while researching this book. Indeed, volumes have been written. What I hope most that readers will take away from this snippet of Dr. Couney’s contributions to history is that one person believing in the most marginalized can change the world when they have the courage to do something everyone thinks is crazy. Maybe this will inspire someone else to do the same, for the sake of the despised, the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the forgotten.
And for the sake of preemies everywhere like our precious Jack and Eloise.
May God bless and protect all NICU babies, their families, their nurses, RTs, physicians, and everyone involved in their extraordinary care!