Hoboken resident and author Dawn Raffel released her fifth book, “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney,” in July, and the nonfiction tale is already winning rave reviews and was named on the New York Times New& Noteworthy list.
While Raffel has written fiction before, the new book is a true story about the enigmatic Dr. Martin Couney, who saved the lives of thousands of premature babies by placing them in incubators in World’s Fair side shows — as well as shows in Coney Island and Atlantic City — in the 1930s.
The book explores who Dr. Couney is, his life, the lives he saved, and the medical world at the turn of the 20th century.
Raffel said she first came across Couney when she was researching the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, called “The Century of Progress.” She came across a picture of an infant incubator sideshow next to a burlesque show.
“I thought this was the strangest thing,” said Raffel.
Some years later, she convinced a friend to explore Coney Island with her. There, she came across a picture of the same infant incubator show. The show had been held at Coney Island for 40 years straight.
“I knew at that moment I had to get to the bottom of this story,” said Raffel.
A longtime writer
Raffel has always been creative. She was a fiction editor at different publications for many years, and helped launch O, The Oprah Magazine, where she served as executive articles editor for seven years. She subsequently held senior-level “at- large” positions at More magazine and Reader’s Digest. She has also taught in the MFA program at Columbia University.
She and moved to Hoboken 23 years ago when she and her husband were expecting their first child.
“Our first child was about to be born and we knew we needed someplace bigger than our little apartment in New York City,” said Raffel.
“It was a completely surprising journey.” –Dawn Raffel
The writing process
Raffel began researching the infant incubator sideshow and its mysterious Dr. Martin Couney in 2007.
She said she had to reteach herself how to do research. Apart from her memoir “The Secret Life of Objects” released in 2012, all of her other books have been fiction.
As part of her research and exploration, Raffel spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library reading old articles about the sideshow, learning about neonatal medicine, working with historical societies, and even interviewing former patients.
She discovered that Couney was not a medical doctor at all, but saved premature infants, who at the time doctors called “weaklings” and were given a few days to live.
Parents brought these infants to him after hearing about his success. He placed them in incubators, which kept them warm and ensured they were treated by nurses and wet nurses. Fair attendees could pay a few cents to view the sideshow.
Raffel said she views Couney as a heroic, if flawed, character. “He was always trying to persuade doctors and would try and donate the incubators to charity,” she said.
She said one of her favorite experiences was gathering some of his former patients along the East Coast for a small reunion.
”One woman even created a website trying to find others,” she said.
She said she battled with the ethics of what Couney had done, “but none of the women held any ambivalence at all. Everyone I interviewed said it saved their lives.”
She said she wrote at home, at the New York library, and sometimes at Bwe Café on 10th and Washington streets, where she was set to give a little talk this week.
Of the writing process, which took four years and four full drafts, Raffel said it was “torture.”
“As you write and edit you go back and realize you need more information or a new question comes up and you have to do more research,” said Raffel.
She said her family has been incredibly supportive. “They had to hear about this for four years,” she said. “It was really like living with a ghost and inviting him into your home or to your dinner table.”
Meet the author
NPR called the book a “fascinating historical footnote, compassionately told,” and Publishers Weekly called it “a fascinating case for this unusual pioneer’s rightful place in medical history.”
On Thursday, Sept. 27 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., Raffel will discuss the book at Little City Books on the corner for First and Bloomfield streets, part of her national book tour.
The book can be purchased at amazon.com and in bookstores nationwide.
For more tour dates and information see www.dawnraffel.com.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.