The Strange Case of Dr. Couney is the extraordinary tale of how a mysterious immigrant "doctor" became the revolutionary innovator of saving premature babies--by placing them in incubators in World's Fair side shows and on Coney Island and Atlantic City. How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century émigré became the savior to families with premature infants, known then as "weaklings"--while ignoring the scorn of the medical establishment and fighting the climate of eugenics--is one of the most astounding stories of modern medicine. And as readers will find, Dr. Couney, for all his opportunistic entrepreneurial gusto, is a surprisingly appealing character, someone who genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients. But he had something to hide.
Drawing on historical documents, original reportage, and interviews with surviving patients, acclaimed journalist and magazine editor Dawn Raffel tells the marvelously eccentric story of Couney's mysterious carnival career, his larger-than-life personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of tiny babies.
"This astonishing new book will be an instant classic of literary nonfiction—painstakingly researched and written with lyricism and irony. Dawn Raffel has pulled the curtain on one of the most remarkable rescue missions in history. Over seven thousand innocent lives saved at a time when medical science turned its treasonous back."
-Dennis Covington, author of National Book Award finalist Salvation on Sand Mountain
"In carnival midways in the early decades of the 20th century—amid carousels, elephants, fire-eaters, and pie-eating contests—a gentleman of indeterminate origin, of unspecified medical background, displayed premature human babies in incubators that looked like arcade games. They were real babies, not wax; struggling to live; at home among the "Human Oddities!" of the side-shows only because preemies weighing two or three pounds at birth didn't ever survive, had rarely been seen. Fair-goers bought tickets and lined up to gawk at them, and were asked to refrain from trying to reach in and poke the infants. Though Dr. Couney (both the prefix and the name were inventions) was more showman than doctor, he saved the babies' lives by the thousands and pioneered American neonatology. His story is richly told in a book that savors every honk of John Philip Sousa from a marching band, every salty crunch of carnival popcorn, every sparkle of a Ferris wheel turning in a night sky, and the desperate hopes of parents traveling from their lying-in hospitals by bus or subway to the carnivals, carrying their premature newborns in shoe boxes and hat boxes or inside their coats."
--Melissa Fay Greene, two-time National Book Award finalist for Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing
"Long before modern neonatal clinics made it possible and even commonplace to save premature babies, Dr. Couney's "infant incubators" welcomed the "tiniest bits of humanity" into the world with two drops of brandy and a show name. A fantastic, carnivalesque story filled with twists and surprises, The Strange Case of Dr. Couney entertains with a delightful assortment of historical oddities and a serious, sobering look at health practices, missteps, and unexpectedly resourceful advances in American medicine."
-Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats