True Stories

 
 
Lucille Horn and her daughter Barbara in 2015. Although she was “not supposed to live a day,” she was 95 in this picture.

Lucille Horn and her daughter Barbara in 2015. Although she was “not supposed to live a day,” she was 95 in this picture.

Martin Couney’s “babies”

Martin Couney saved some 7,000 American babies. Some of them are still alive; the oldest I’ve spoken with was 98 (and sharp as a tack) when we talked. Almost everywhere I go, an audience member raises his or her hand to say, “I was one of those babies,” or “My parent was one of those babies.”

To the left is Lucille Horn, who was “not supposed to live a day.” The doctor who delivered her told her parents there was no hope. With Martin Couney’s help, she lived to be 96. Next to her is her daughter Barbara.

Some of these stories are in The Strange Case of Dr. Couney. Others are new to me, as Martin Couney’s former patients continue to come forward.

 
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One of Martin Couney’s most famous patients was his own daughter, Hildegarde, born at three pounds. She grew up to be one of his nurses. But in the early 1900s, she could be found riding atop a “preemie float” on the Atlantic City boardwalk, an image I presented in my slideshow/talk at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library, moderated by Donna Seaman (left).

 
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While in Chicago, many of Dr. Couney’s former patients came onstage, along with three children of Couney babies. From left to right: Howard Bolnick, whose mother, Rae Bolnick, was 98 at the time of our meeting, and the oldest known Couney baby. Twins Jane Umbarger and Jean Harrison were born premature in the summer of 1934, and taken to the incubator exhibition at the Century of Progress World’s Fair. (Their double wedding at age nineteen, was covered in Time magazine!) They did not know they’d been on the midway until they were in their 40s, believing they were in the Hall of Science. Twins Jerry and Larry Gordon were on display at the same fair (which ran for two summers), class of ‘33. Next is Craig Marchbanks, whose late father, Ellsner Marchbanks, was also in the ‘33 exhibition. Finally, Alan Durell, whose mom, Beth Allen, was one of Dr. Couney’s last patients at Coney Island, in 1941. (You can see a smidgeon of baby Beth’s foot on the screen above the group.)

More stories are coming soon!