“The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies” by Dawn Raffel— An Extraordinary True Story

Raffel, Dawn. “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies”, Blue Rider, 2018.

An Extraordinary True Story

Amos Lassen

Writer Dawn Raffel introduces us to Dr. Martin Arthur Couney and his extraordinary life story. Dr. Couney figured out that he could use incubators and careful nursing to keep previously doomed infants alive (which is not so strange), while at the same time make good money displaying these babies alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and burlesque shows (which is very strange).

Dr. Couney saved many prematurely born infants and at the same time that he had to deal with the scorn of the medical establishment which he ignored. He also had to deal with the new science of eugenics. Couney was an opportunist and he was also a nice guy who really cared about his little patients. However, a part of the puzzle about who Couney was seemed to be missing.

Raffel has done wonderful research here to give us an almost unbelievable story. Couney was born Michael Conn and for more than 40 years, he saved the lives of tiny premature babies by placing them in incubator sideshows at Coney Island and world’s fairs. He did this instead of charging his patients’ families and was able to fund his practice by charging admission to curious crowds. At the same time we fought a medical establishment that claimed these were hopeless cases and a eugenics movement that wanted the weakest to die.

Dr. Couney also helped get Jews out of Nazi Germany. What only Dr. Couney knew was that his medical documents were not real and neither was the name of Dr. Couney. Yet, he was the man who saved over 6000 children some of whom are still alive today 

Through the use of newly discovered documents, obscure reports, and interviews with some of the now elderly surviving infants, Raffel brings us the story of Couney’s carnival career, his personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of tiny babies. What we really see here is “how technological ingenuity and exuberance could be built on compassion”.

The book is filled with photographs and I must say that I found it to be one of the most fascinating books that I have read this year. I probably would never have hard about it had I not been contacted by the book’s publicist and now I want to make sure that others hear about this book. As for that missing piece of the puzzle (even though I made a slight mention of it), you will simply have to read this to find out if it fits or not.

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