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

Dawn Raffel. Blue Rider, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-399-17574-9
Raffel (In the Year of Long Division) sheds a welcome light on a medical outlier whose landmark treatment of premature babies was largely dismissed because of the carnival setting in which he showcased their care. Pulling together documents, photos, and interviews, including some with now-elderly preemies who were among Couney’s incubator babies, Raffel traces the extraordinary life of Michael Cohn, born in 1869 in Krotoszyn, Poland, as he reinvents himself in America as Dr. Martin Couney, proud showman of tiny incubator babies—some as small as two pounds—in specialized facilities he constructed at world’s fairs and summer amusement parks across the country. What the medical world ignored—save Chicago pediatrician and father of neonatology Julius Hess, who deeply admired Couney and was profoundly influenced by his work—was the meticulous attention those fragile babies were given: frequent feedings by round-the-clock wet-nurses or with a “spoon-to-the-nose” maneuver, and even oxygen. The exhibits, Raffel finds, were “the forerunners of the modern premature nursery” eventually popularized by Hess and other pediatricians. It’s estimated Couney saved between 6,500 and 7,000 preemies brought to him by their parents, an extraordinary accomplishment at a time when few doctors were even attempting it. With colorful descriptions of the carnival world and the medical marvels of early neonatalogy, Raffel makes a fascinating case for this unusual pioneer’s rightful place in medical history. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (July)
Reviewed on: 04/30/2018
Release date: 07/31/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-1-5247-4496-0
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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