Michael Cohen was born in 1869 in what is now Poland. Because of bias against people of Jewish faith, he changed his name to Martin Couney. While his career was in medicine, there is some doubt whether he ever studied for a medical degree. He did do an apprenticeship with the founder of perinatal medicine. He developed a real interest in supporting the survival of children born under distress.
At the time, there was a eugenics movement which discouraged the treatment of babies who might pass on their deficiencies to future generations. Medical journals even published articles questioning efforts to keep distressed babies alive.
Martin took an interest in the possible use of incubators as a way to treat distressed babies. Incubators had been used to hatch chicken eggs. It was Martin’s apprenticeship mentor who first experimented with the use of incubators for children and piqued Martin’s interest.
The problem wasn’t with the potential effectiveness of incubators, but the medical community’s attitude toward their use. Doctors did not think the expense of caring for distressed babies was worth it.
Martin decided to reach out to the public to see if he could build support for saving the lives of babies using incubators. The approach he used we would consider appalling today, but no one can doubt its effectiveness since lives of babies are saved every day in virtually every hospital around the world.
What Martin did was to take distressed babies from communities where the fairs were being held place them in incubators, and put them on display. People paid to see the babies. He hired nurses to be a part of the show. Thousands of people were attracted to the show. Martin nurtured them to where they could survive outside of the incubators. His daughter, who was born prematurely, was a part of the show. Over the life span of the show, the survival success rate was over 85% and over 6,500 babies were saved.
It took almost 50 years for most hospitals to utilize incubators and accept the fact that distressed babies were worth saving. Martin even agreed to donate incubators to community hospitals where his shows were held. He was often refused.
Today, one-in-ten babies are born prematurely and their chances of survival are greatly improved. Advocates of hope face a task that can be daunting. They give hope to those who aren’t aware that hope even exists. Often they work behind the scenes and make hope possible when the recipient of that hope isn’t even aware. We often refer to these hope advocates as guardian angels.
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“It’s strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right.” – Lena Horn (one of the premature babies who was saved, she lived to the age of 96)