The premature babies of Coney Island

Once upon a time on the circus or carnival midway, among the smell of hot dogs and the barkers’ cries, spectators could witness some amazing side attractions, from fire-eaters to bearded ladies, from electric dancers to the most exotic monstrosities (see f.i. some previous posts here and here).
Beyond our fascination for a time of naive wonder, there is another less-known reason for which we should be grateful to old traveling fairs: among the readers who are looking at this page right now, almost one out of ten is alive thanks to the sideshows.

This is the strange story of how amusement parks, and a visionary doctor’s stubbornness, contributed to save millions of human lives.

Until the end of XIX Century, premature babies had little or no chance of survival. Hospitals did not have neonatal units to provide efficient solutions to the problem, so the preemies were given back to their parents to be taken home — practically, to die. In all evidence, God had decided that those babies were not destined to survive.
In 1878 a famous Parisian obstetrician, Dr. Étienne Stéphane Tarnier, visited an exhibition called Jardin d’Acclimatation which featured, among other displays, a new method for hatching poultry in a controlled, hydraulic heated environment, invented by a Paris Zoo keeper; immediately the doctor thought he could test that same system on premature babies and commissioned a similar box, which allowed control of the temperature of the newborn’s environment.
After the first positive experimentations at the Maternity Hospital in Paris, the incubator was soon equipped with a bell that rang whenever the temperature went too high.
The doctor’s assistant, Pierre Budin, further developed the Tarnier incubator, on one hand studying how to isolate and protect the frail newborn babies from infectious disease, and on the other the correct quantities and methods of alimentation.

Despite the encouraging results, the medical community still failed to recognize the usefulness of incubators. This skepticism mainly stemmed from a widespread mentality: as mentioned before, the common attitude towards premature babies was quite fatalist, and the death of weaker infants was considered inevitable since the most ancient times.

Thus Budin decided to send his collaborator, Dr. Martin Couney, to the 1896 World Exhibition in Berlin. Couney, our story’s true hero, was an uncommon character: besides his knowledge as an obstetrician, he had a strong charisma and true showmanship; these virtues would prove fundamental for the success of his mission, as we shall see.
Couney, with the intent of creating a bit of a fuss in order to better spread the news, had the idea of exhibiting live premature babies inside his incubators. He had the nerve to ask Empress Augusta Victoria herself for permission to use some infants from the Charity Hospital in Berlin. He was granted the favor, as the newborn babies were destined to a certain death anyway.
But none of the infants lodged inside the incubators died, and Couney’s exhibition, called Kinderbrutanstalt (“child hatchery”) immediately became the talk of the town.

This success was repeated the following year in London, at Earl’s Court Exhibition (scoring 3600 visitors each day), and in 1898 at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1900 he came back to Paris for the World Exhibition, and in 1901 he attended the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, NY.

L'edificio costruito per gli incubatori a Buffalo.

The incubators building in Buffalo.

The incubators at the Buffalo Exhibition.

But in the States Couney met an even stronger resistence to accept this innovation, let alone implementing it in hospitals.
It must be stressed that although he was exhibiting a medical device, inside the various fairs his incubator stand was invariably (and much to his disappointment) confined to the entertainment section rather than the scientific section.
Maybe this was the reason why in 1903 Couney took a courageous decision.

If Americans thought incubators were just some sort of sideshow stunt, well then, he would give them the entertainment they wanted. But they would have to pay for it.

Infant-Incubators-building-at-1901-Pan-American-Exposition

Baby_incubator_exhibit,_A-Y-P,_1909

Couney definitively moved to New York, and opened a new attraction at Coney Island amusement park. For the next 40 years, every summer, the doctor exhibited premature babies in his incubators, for a quarter dollar. Spectators flowed in to contemplate those extremely underweight babies, looking so vulnerable and delicate as they slept in their temperate glass boxes. “Oh my, look how tiny!“, you could hear the crowd uttering, as people rolled along the railing separating them from the aisle where the incubators were lined up.

 

In order to accentuate the minuscule size of his preemies, Couney began resorting to some tricks: if the baby wasn’t small enough, he would add more blankets around his little body, to make him look tinier. Madame Louise Recht, a nurse who had been by Couney’s side since the very first exhibitions in Paris, from time to time would slip her ring over the babies’ hands, to demonstrate how thin their wrists were: but in reality the ring was oversized even for the nurse’s fingers.

Madame Louise Recht con uno dei neonati.

Madame Louise Recht with a newborn baby.

Preemie wearing on his wrist the nurse’s sparkler.

Couney’s enterprise, which soon grew into two separate incubation centers (one in Luna Park and the other in Dreamland), could seem quite cynical today. But it actually was not.
All the babies hosted in his attractions had been turned down by city hospitals, and given back to the parents who had no hope of saving them; the “Doctor Incubator” promised families that he would treat the babies without any expense on their part, as long as he could exhibit the preemies in public. The 25 cents people paid to see the newborn babies completely covered the high incubation and feeding expenses, even granting a modest profit to Couney and his collaborators. This way, parents had a chance to see their baby survive without paying a cent, and Couney could keep on raising awareness about the importance and effectiveness of his method.
Couney did not make any race distinction either, exhibiting colored babies along with white babies — an attitude that was quite rare at the beginning of the century in America. Among the “guests” displayed in his incubators, was at one point Couney’s own premature daughter, Hildegarde, who later became a nurse and worked with her father on the attraction.

Nurses with babies at Flushing World Fair, NY. At the center is Couney’s daughter, Hildegarde.

Besides his two establishments in Coney Island (one of which was destroyed during the 1911 terrible Dreamland fire), Couney continued touring the US with his incubators, from Chicago to St. Louis, to San Francisco.
In forty years, he treated around 8000 babies, and saved at least 6500; but his endless persistence in popularizing the incubator had much lager effects. His efforts, on the long run, contributed to the opening of the first neonatal intensive care units, which are now common in hospitals all around the world.

After a peak in popularity during the first decades of the XX Century, at the end of the 30s the success of Couney’s incubators began to decrease. It had become an old and trite attraction.
When the first premature infant station opened at Cornell’s New York Hospital in 1943, Couney told his nephew: “my work is done“. After 40 years of what he had always considered propaganda for a good cause, he definitively shut down his Coney Island enterprise.

Martin Arthur Couney (1870–1950).

The majority of information in this post comes from the most accurate study on the subject, by Dr. William A. Silverman (Incubator-Baby Side Shows, Pediatrics, 1979).

(Thanks, Claudia!)

Bambini adulti

Parliamo nuovamente di parafilie. Questa volta affrontiamo una di quelle pratiche feticistiche/sessuali che sembrano talmente improbabili da risultare “finte” o “esagerate”. Eppure sono cose che avvengono realmente, forse più frequentemente di quanto saremmo portati a pensare. Guardate il filmato qui sotto.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wibiey7I3jc

Quest’uomo che è vestito e si comporta come un bambino di pochi mesi è un appassionato di infantilismo parafilico. Se lo definiamo “appassionato di”, e non “affetto da”, è perché nella psicologia moderna è in atto una sorta di rivalutazione delle cosiddette parafilie. Oggi risulta più evidente che certe pratiche non hanno alla base una vera e propria patologia comportamentale o mentale, ma sono spesso paragonabili a terapeutici giochi di ruolo. Secondo alcuni psicologi, quindi, non andrebbe enfatizzato il carattere deviante di certi interessi, quanto piuttosto il loro aspetto giocoso. Resta il fatto che vedere un adulto scimmiottare gli atteggiamenti di un bebè può far ridere a prima vista, e inquietare in un secondo momento. Cerchiamo quindi di capire qualcosa di più sugli adult babies, come amano definirsi i devoti di questo genere di pantomima.

Bisogna innanzitutto distinguere l’infantilismo parafilico dal feticismo per il pannolone. Quest’ultimo è semplicemente il desiderio di indossare il pannolone senza una reale necessità, ma non implica automaticamente comportamenti puerili ed è riconducibile ad una più generica fissazione per certi capi di vestiario. Queste persone, che amano indossare il pannolone regolarmente, sono chiamati amanti del pannolone (diaper lovers, o DL). I “bambini adulti”, invece, sono attratti da una vera e propria regressione totale allo stadio infantile: non soltanto pannoloni, quindi, ma ciucci, biberon, peluche, lettini con le sbarre e tutto l’armamentario normalmente riservato ai neonati. (Gli adult babies sono, nel gergo, contrassegnati dalla sigla AB, mentre quelli che amano entrambi i “filoni” sono denominati AB/DL). La maggioranza degli AB sono, manco a dirlo, maschi ed eterosessuali.

Innanzitutto chiariamo una cosa: nessun “bambino adulto” va accomunato alla pedofilia, in alcun modo. Gli AB non hanno desiderio nei confronti dei bambini, vogliono soltanto diventare bambini. Secondo molti studiosi, gli AB non avrebbero addirittura alcuna libido, e non ci sarebbe in definitiva granché di sessuale nei loro giochi. Per qualcuno si tratta di liberarsi completamente da ogni costrizione comportamentale: essere liberi, sereni, senza sovrastrutture, completamente istintivi. Per altri si tratta di rivivere esperienze infantili, seppure idealizzate ed idilliache. Per altri ancora, lo scopo è trovare l’amore materno mai provato, o ancora avvertire quel misto di eccitazione e vergogna che si prova quando “gli altri scoprono che ti sei fatto la pipì addosso”. Ovviamente i gusti individuali variano considerevolmente, e ogni AB predilige certi accessori o determinate situazioni specifiche.

Un’altra distinzione che conviene fare è quella fra infantilismo e anaclitismo: quest’ultimo è un bisogno di appoggio che rende il soggetto sessualmente stimolato da oggetti con cui ha avuto un contatto durante l’infanzia. Se per esempio da bambino sono stato più volte esposto, in specifici momenti, al velluto, da adulto potrei sviluppare un feticismo per questo tipo di tessuto. L’infantilismo parafilico si differenzia da questo bisogno, in quanto si riferisce normalmente a una sorta di “archetipo” del mondo infantile. Gli AB si trovano a loro agio con le farfalle appese al soffitto, gli orsacchiotti e i ciucci colorati, il borotalco e i seggioloni, indipendentemente dal fatto che questi oggetti abbiano avuto un reale significato nella loro storia individuale.

Rileggendo le righe appena scritte, ci rendiamo conto che abbiamo segnalato tutto ciò che i “bambini adulti” non sono. Purtroppo esistono pochi studi scientifici su questa parafilia, anche perché pochi sono i soggetti che cercano cure specialistiche per questa loro “passione”. Restano quindi ancora nebulosi alcuni interrogativi che sorgono spontanei: è possibile comprendere se ci sia una causa per questo comportamento? L’eccitazione che gli AB provano è puramente mentale o anche sessuale? Cosa spinge un uomo ad esercitarsi per mesi al fine di diventare incontinente? Perché alcuni AB nascondono la loro ossessione, mentre altri la esibiscono anche in coda al supermercato?

Se vi interessa indagare questo stravagante mondo, il sito Understanding Infantilism può essere un buon inizio (a patto che mastichiate l’inglese). Un altro buon articolo (sempre in inglese) che cerca di delineare un fedele identikit dell’infantilismo si può trovare qui.