Sunday, August 21, 2016

As Mary Wells sang, You Beat Me to the Punch

When you do half assed work on a project for years, you cannot be upset when someone else beats you to the publishing press. Such is the case with Claire Prentice, who has recently wrote a book called Miracle at Coney Island: How a Sideshow Doctor Saved Thousands of Babies and Transformed American Medicine.

It's about Martin Couney, the man who saved many, many lives of premature babies by keeping them in infantoriums, an early form of a modern neo-natal unit disguised as a carnival sideshow.

Her research is sound, and it makes some fantastic discoveries about Couney, primarily about his early background (which is still very murky) but also reveals that he never earned any kind of medical degree. A rather amazing accomplishment considering the work he was doing. Prentice does say, correctly, that Couney never administered medication, his techniques and innovations in neo-natal science did not really use it. Plus, although there is no paper trail, he claims to have had a very high success rate at saving lives.

After my son was born premature, I came across Couney through the work of William Silverman a noted neonatalogist, who was one of the first American doctors to do any research into Couney's life. He died in 2004, but Prentice was able to interview one of Silverman's colleagues, but did not give Silverman any credit.

Prentice did find and interview several of Couney's patients (I found one) and gives us a good look at how the infantorium was run. She also mentioned the patients proudly displayed photographs of themselves at the infantorium but the book has no photographs. A missed opportunity to humanize them, and Couney.

Overall it is a slim volume, only available on Kindle, that cracks a few mysteries about the life of Martin Couney save one. I'm still trying to find out what happened to Couney's Daughter Hildegarde, who became one of his nurses. No trace of her seems to exist. I think the paperwork of the Couney estate and infantoriums went with her.

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