One hundred years ago, three out of every four babies born prematurely didn’t survive.
This wasn’t in underdeveloped countries, this was in Europe and the US.
Doctors and nurses did try to save them, but there wasn’t a lot they could do.
The little babies weren’t fully formed, they were tiny and undernourished.
They couldn’t even generate enough heat to warm themselves, so 75% died.
The medical profession accepted that it was the natural way.
Except for Dr Etienne Tarnier, at L’Hôpital Paris Maternité.
He noticed that on farms, chickens’ eggs were being hatched by being kept warm.
And in 1880, he and a colleague, Dr Pierre Budin, began trying the same thing on babies.
They had boxes made which would retain the heat, with a glass top to let the light in, and a hot-water bottle to keep the tiny body warm.
They were inventing the incubator.
They noticed that the survival rate for these premature babies was much higher.
Obviously, the first thing to do was to get these "incubators" installed in hospitals.
But none of the medical authorities were interested in such a silly, expensive gimmick.
First: they knew it was quite natural for babies born too soon not to survive.
Second: what possible connection could farms and chicken eggs have with humans?
No medical establishment would entertain the idea.
So another colleague, Dr Martin Couney, decided to bypass medical establishments.
He made six incubators and took them to the 1896 World Exhibition in Berlin.
Then he asked the Berlin Charity Hospital for six premature babies.
They gave them to him, as they were almost certain to die anyway.
He hired nurses and exhibited the babies in the incubators, to the public.
The exhibit was called "Couney’s Kinderbrutanstalt" (Couney’s Child Hatchery).
The public paid to see tiny living babies almost a quarter the size of normal babies.
And, against all medical predictions, all six babies survived to grow into healthy infants.
This gave Couney the impetus he needed.
He took his incubators to the US, where just as many premature babies were dying.
In 1901 he did the same thing at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York.
In 1902, he did it again at the World's Fair.
And in 1903 he moved his exhibit to Coney Island, to Dreamland and to Luna Park.
He knew people would happily pay 25 cents to see the cutest little babies in the world, wrapped up snug and warm.
And poor families were only too grateful to give their babies a chance to survive.
As a reporter wrote at the time: "It would be harder to find a finer set of infants anywhere than those which cooed in their mothers’ arms while their photographs were being taken yesterday afternoon, or a more satisfied set of paters and maters."
Couney’s incubators exhibited to paying customers at Coney Island for the next 40 years.
During that time, they saved 6,500 out of 8,000 premature babies lives.
That’s an 85% survival rate, up from a 25% survival rate without the incubators.
Eventually the medical authorities saw sense, and today, incubators are saving lives in hospitals worldwide.
All because those rebellious doctors didn’t listen to conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom says you can’t question people in authority.
But those rebellious doctors knew they were right, so they did whatever it took.
If they couldn’t save lives in a hospital, they’d save lives in a fairground.
Even if they had to charge people 25 cents a time to see them do it.
There’s an old Chinese saying: "Those that say it can’t be done, shouldn’t get in the way of those that are doing it."
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three