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How American Fairs Became a Breeding Ground for Nazism

Friday, July 27, 2018| Permalink

By Dawn Raffel

In the early 20th century, world’s fairs were an enormously popular source of entertainment and education. It was where the public was introduced to new inventions and ideas: from the ice cream cone to the milking machine, to the boob tube itself.

President William McKinley, addressing a crowd at the Buffalo World’s Fair in 1901, called the expositions “timekeepers of progress.” As it happened, McKinley was shot by an anarchist at the fair the following day—and although the X-ray machine was one of the new inventions on display, no one knew how to use it on the President. The bullet that doctors couldn’t find led to McKinley’s death from gangrene a few days later.

Meanwhile, at the Buffalo Fair, a mysterious European showman was introducing the east coast to the infant incubator, having first presented this French invention at the Omaha World’s Fair a few years earlier. “Dr. Coney,” born Michael Cohn in Krotoschin, Prussia, would later legally change his name to Martin Arthur Couney. At first, the reaction to the infant incubators was largely positive; Pediatrics and Scientific American lauded the new invention. But one detractor was chilling. An anonymous article in The Buffalo Medical Journal questioned the wisdom of saving premature infants—“weaklings," as they were called. Whereas any good stock breeder raises only “the most sound, healthy, and perfect animals,” the anonymous author continued, medical science was sentimental in helping inferior humans perpetuate their kind. This nascent strain of eugenic thinking (an offshoot of the new science of genetics) would grow uglier, not only dimming the prospects of premature babies but also fueling a war against the “degenerate” and “unfit.”

Between 1911 and 1913, "Better Baby" contests, often sponsored by local eugenic societies, were held all over the United States. Infants were brought to state fair grounds and awarded prizes based on physical characteristics such as height, weight, quality of skin, and shape of eyes, nose, and jaw—the way you might judge a livestock exhibition. Forty-five states, out of forty-eight then in the union, held such contests. Although the emphasis was allegedly on health, the shadow was "master race." One organizer, a Denver gynecologist named Mary Bates, wrote of the contests in terms of her larger goal: to “speed the day when we can have the scientific elimination of the unfit."

Over time, three prongs of eugenics emerged. So-called positive eugenics focused on better prenatal and infant care (with disturbing undercurrents), while negative eugenics led to the horror of involuntary sterilization for more than sixty thousand "undesirables,” including African Americans, Mexicans, people with intellectual disabilities, and those who'd committed petty crimes. American eugenics was robustly funded, including by the Carnegie Foundation. The U.S. government even adopted eugenics-based, and Nazi-influenced policies: In the most exhaustive and horrifying book about the link between American eugenics and the Nazis, Edwin Black's War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race reveals that many American eugenicists were Nazi sympathizers, and successfully persuaded the State Department to limit the number of Jewish refugees they allowed into the country. 

The third prong of the eugenic trident came close to outright murder. In 1917, Dr. Harry Haiselden at German Hospital in Chicago publicly advocated for allowing severely disabled infants to die, even if they could be saved. He not only withheld treatment but also invited the press to watch these children die, on multiple occasions. Privately, some American eugenicists did discuss murder—but they never went that far. 

In 1933 and 1934, Chicago held a world’s fair called The Century of Progress. This isn’t the famous Chicago World’s Fair most people think about with the ferris wheel, which was held in 1893. This second world’s fair took place at the bottom of the Depression. It opened the year Hitler came to power in Germany. It was also the first American world's fair to host a eugenics exhibition, in the Hall of Science. Described as "the self-direction of human evolution," eugenics was explained in four wall panels showing, for instance, good versus “degenerate” family trees.

Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Couney was still out on the midway, fighting for the lives of premature infants with his incubator show. But while the eugenics exhibit was housed in the Hall of Science, Couney’s incubators were considered entertainment. American doctors had largely abandoned the lifesaving technology, and there was scant interest in saving “weaklings.” Couney not only demonstrated repeatedly that premature babies could be saved but he also argued persuasively that they should be. He liked to say he was making "Propaganda for Preemies."

Couney died broke and largely forgotten, but he provided the unconventional inspiration for American neonatology. He had a profound effect on the physicians who would eventually standardize both hospital care and public health policy for preemies. He also saved the lives of an estimated 7,000 American children.

As for the eugenicists, we know where that led.

Dawn Raffel is the author of  The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Coney Island Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies.

Unknown / Wikimedia Commons

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