The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mys­te­ri­ous Euro­pean Show­man Saved Thou­sands of Amer­i­can Babies

March 29, 2018

Dr. Mar­tin Arthur Couney (nee Michael Cohn) was one of the most improb­a­ble heroes of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. For more than 40 years, he saved tiny pre­ma­ture babies by plac­ing them in incu­ba­tor sideshows at Coney Island and world’s fairs, right out on the mid­way, next to the sword swal­low­ers and strip­pers. Rather than charge his patients’ par­ents, he fund­ed his prac­tice by charg­ing admis­sion to curi­ous crowds, all the while fight­ing a med­ical estab­lish­ment that claimed these were hope­less cas­es and a eugen­ics move­ment that want­ed the weak­est to die. He also helped get Jews out of Nazi Ger­many. Despite med­ical cre­den­tials that were as fab­ri­cat­ed as his name, Dr. Couney was the hid­den father of Amer­i­can neona­tol­ogy, per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble for sav­ing the lives of more than 6500 chil­dren. Some of them are still alive. This larg­er-than-life per­son­al­i­ty has been large­ly for­got­ten – until now.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Dawn Raffel

  1. Dr. Mar­tin Arthur Couney of France” (born Michael Cohn of Poland) was an extreme­ly com­pli­cat­ed man. He began by chang­ing his name to sound not-Jew­ish (pret­ty much stan­dard for Jew­ish show­men of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry). He then fab­ri­cat­ed impres­sive French med­ical cre­den­tials and set about treat­ing pre­ma­ture infants in incu­ba­tor sideshows on the board­walks of places like Coney Island. Out­ra­geous­ly, he hired bark­ers and charged admis­sion to view his patients. And yet…despite his com­plete lack of med­ical train­ing and his wild­ly unortho­dox hos­pi­tal,” he was decades ahead of the Amer­i­can med­ical estab­lish­ment. He saved pre­emies by the thou­sands when real” hos­pi­tals could not and would not do it. Some of the rough­ly 7,000 peo­ple whose lives he saved are still alive (the old­est is nine­ty-eight), as are their thou­sands of descen­dants. So he was a fraud and a hero. How does Jew­ish teach­ing guide us when we have to make deci­sions about when/​whether the ends jus­ti­fy the means? What does the Torah teach us about com­pli­cat­ed men and women?

  2. Mar­tin Couney was not obser­vant in any tra­di­tion­al way. Yet in addi­tion to sav­ing pre­emies, he stuck his neck out to get Jews out of Ger­many in the late 1930s — writ­ing affi­davits and send­ing mon­ey first for his niece and nephew, but then for oth­ers who were strangers. What makes some­body a good Jew”? Is it obser­vance, or action, or many pos­si­ble com­bi­na­tions of both?

  3. One rea­son med­ical care for pre­emies was lack­ing in the ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry is that they were clas­si­fied as weak­lings” and fee­ble” — and some had dis­abil­i­ties. Mar­tin Couney was work­ing in the shad­ow of a rag­ing eugen­ics move­ment. Many peo­ple in the U.S. won­dered whether weak­lings” were worth sav­ing, and some of the most vir­u­lent eugeni­cists argued in favor of delib­er­ate­ly allow­ing infants with severe dis­abil­i­ties to die rather than offer­ing treat­ment. Amongst them­selves, they dis­cussed mur­der. There’s clear evi­dence of their com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the Nazis, who felt inspired by Amer­i­can eugen­ics. In addi­tion, Amer­i­can eugeni­cists were influ­en­tial with the State Depart­ment in pre­vent­ing a flood of Jews” from enter­ing the coun­try. So while Amer­i­ca has been our safe har­bor, it also bears some blame. Are there par­al­lels to today’s news? How do we ensure there is nev­er a repeat?

  4. By the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the med­ical pen­du­lum had swung 180 degrees when it came to pre­emies. The push was on to take extreme mea­sures for every baby, no mat­ter how slim the odds of sur­vival or how des­per­ate­ly com­pro­mised the infant — with some doc­tors wor­ry­ing that they were only pro­long­ing suf­fer­ing. Today, life­sav­ing tech­nol­o­gy makes these ques­tions even hard­er. How do we define qual­i­ty of life? To what extent does it mat­ter whether the patient is a new­born or a nona­ge­nar­i­an? When is it cru­el to force a heart to beat?

  5. In addi­tion to life­sav­ing tech­nol­o­gy, we now also have genet­ic test­ing and edit­ing. These tests will soon be able to iden­ti­fy not only fatal and heart­break­ing anom­alies but also unde­sir­able” char­ac­ter­is­tics. Again, who decides which lives are worth liv­ing, and where do we draw the line?

  6. Are there any pre­emies in your fam­i­ly? How did they fare? Do you have an inspir­ing true sto­ry to share?