The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: A Selected Bibliography

August 29th, 2018


What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? As Dawn Raffel artfully recounts, Dr. Couney figured out he could use incubators and careful nursing to keep previously doomed infants alive, and at the same time make good money displaying these babies alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and burlesque shows. How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century émigré became the savior to families with premature infants, known then as "weaklings"––while ignoring the scorn of the medical establishment and fighting the climate of eugenics––is one of the most astounding stories of modern medicine. And as readers will find, Dr. Couney, for all his opportunistic entrepreneurial gusto, is a surprisingly appealing character, someone who genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients. But he had something to hide.


Drawing on historical documents, original reportage, and interviews with surviving patients, acclaimed journalist and magazine editor Dawn Raffel tells the marvelously eccentric story of Couney's mysterious carnival career, his larger-than-life personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of tiny babies. Dawn Raffel will discuss The Strange Case of Dr. Couney on September 5 at 6pm.


Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey into the Past, by Edo McCullough - This colorful history of Coney Island is a standout, because Edo McCullough had showbiz in his DNA. His uncle was George C. Tilyou, the legendary owner of Steeplechase Park. His father, James McCullough, ran a dozen shooting galleries, and his grandfather kept scrapbooks dating back to 1876. His insider’s view is written with verve and affection, capturing the essence of America’s playground in its trippy heyday.   

Every Child a Lion: The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 1890-1920, by Alisa Klaus - Meticulously researched and engagingly written, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in public health policy for newborns. Especially eye-opening is the discussion of America’s popular “Better Baby” contests, which were part of a larger eugenics movement.  

The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Pictures Since 1915, by Martin S. Pernick - The true story of a Chicago physician who famously advocated for the death of disabled children—including creating a popular movie—will make your blood boil. It’s history that needs to be known. 

What’s to Become of the Boy: Or Something to Do with Books, by Heinrich Boll - A big part of Dr. Couney’s story is centered on Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933-34. I wanted to understand what was going on in Germany at that time, from a more intimate perspective, and Boll’s memoir provides an indelible account.

1939: The Lost World of the Fair, by David Galernter - New York’s “World of Tomorrow” exposition was to be Couney’s last hurrah (although it turned out to be more of a whimper). This semi-fictionalized account is deeply rooted in research and conveys the feeling of the times, as the Depression lingered and the world teetered on the brink of war.

About Dawn Raffel: Dawn Raffel's illustrated memoir, The Secret Life of Objects was a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Previous books include a critically-acclaimed novel, Carrying the Body and two story collections, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division. A longtime magazine editor, she helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine, where she was executive articles editor. She has also taught creative writing in the MFA program at Columbia University; at summer literary seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia; Montreal; and Vilnius, Lithuania; and at the Center for Fiction in New York. She now works as an independent editor and book reviewer.

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