A number of years ago I read a novel titled The Hatbox Baby, by Carrie Brown. It was the story of a man who brought a premature infant to the Century of Progress (aka as the World’s Fair of 1933*) here in Chicago, where premature babies were displayed in incubators as an exhibit alongside freak shows, “ethnographic villages,” and the titilating gyrations of fan dancer Sally Rand. I no longer remember any details about the plot,** but the image of the incubator babies on display stuck with me. All of which is to say that I was eager to read Dawn Raffel’s newly released The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies.
I was not disappointed. The story that Raffel unfolds is far more complex than I had any reason to hope, and absolutely fascinating. The enigmatic Dr. Couney himself stands at the heart of the story: the immigrant who reinvented himself multiple times, the showman who put premature babies on display for public entertainment, the unrecognized visionary who pioneered American neonatology. Raffel’s search to understand Dr. Couney and his past takes the reader on a merry-go-round of past and present, placing the story of her research alongside Couney’s own story.*** In the course of unraveling Couney’s story, she introduces the reader to the history of neonatal medicine and the complex politics behind “World’s Fairs.” She describes the common fate of premature infants in the early twentieth century who were not lucky enough to find their way to Couney’s incubators, and interviews some of the now elderly infants whom Dr. Couney saved.
The Strange Case of Dr. Couney is an excellent read, particularly if you’re interested in early twentieth century popular culture, the places where science and history intersect, or the stories of flamboyant, slightly shady showmen.
If you want to know more about the book and its author, join the Nonfiction Fans Group over on Facebook, where Dawn Raffel will be answering questions about the book and her research starting on Monday.
*Not to be confused with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the setting for Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City. Which I have not yet read.
**Not a criticism of Brown’s work. I enjoyed the book enough that I immediately read everything else Brown had written.
***A narrative style I find particularly appealing.