The Strange Case of Dr. Couney video, featuring Martin Couney's surviving patients. Yes, Coney Island really looked like this! 

Winner of a 2019 Christopher Award

Named by NPR as one of 2018’s Great Reads 

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. The book has recieved a Christopher Award. Now in its 70th year, the Christopher Awards recognize movies, television, and books that “affirms the highest values of the human spirit.”


It’s a mosaic mystery told in vignettes, cliffhangers, curious asides, and some surreal plot twists as Raffel investigates the secrets of the man who changed infant care in America
— Genevieve Valentine,
Forgotten but fascinating history
The New York Times Book Review, New and Notable
Fascinating, mysterious and compelling….written with great style and the energy of a can’t-put-down thriller.
— Rick Kogan, The Chicago Tribune

“Working in the shadow of the eugenics movement, he insisted that such infants, whom hospitals could seldom save, deserved a chance.” —The New Yorker

With his incubators and painstaking care, before countless audiences at world’s fairs, Coney Island and Atlantic City, Couney is estimated to have saved between 6,500 and 7,000 babies over his long career.
— Julia Pierpont,
A compelling historic mystery uncovered.
Saturday Evening Post
With fantastic detail, Raffel brings to life this complicated pioneer.
— Elizabeth Sile, Real Simple
Existing on the cusp of the fantastical and scientific breakthrough, stories like this are the backbone of our American lore, legend, and history.
— Leah Angstman, The Coil
With a couturier’s skill, Dawn Raffel’s The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies threads facts and education into a dramatic and highly unusual narrative.
— Laura Durnell, The National Book Review
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.
Publishers Weekly
Compelling on many levels… Raffel’s arresting and illuminating work of hidden history should not be missed.
A wild and intriguing tale.
Library Journal
Many readers will share Raffel’s admiration of Couney... The book’s title is no hype; this is a startling account of an improbable huckster who made his living promoting a lifesaving device.
Kirkus Reviews
A story too crazy to be anything but true.
The sensationalism rested on real medical miracles
— Ryan Paul Winn, American History Magazine
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
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
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