The Danger of Making a Public Show of Incubators for Babies

The Lancet, February 5, 1898, pages 390-391.

The introduction of incubators for babies into this country has been favourably noticed in The Lancet. The incubators which we described were exhibited at Earl’s-court. [See The Lancet, May 29th, 1897.] They were manufactured by scientific instrument makers of high reputation who provide many of the apparatus used in Professor Koch’s laboratory. Skilled attendants were employed who had been specially trained not merely in the care of babies and the management of incubators but more particularly in the nursing of prematurely born or especially debilitated infants. Again, though the Victorian Era Exhibition was looked upon as a mere pleasure resort by many it was also a serious exhibition where objects of art of great value were collected side by side with scientific inventions bearing on medical and public health questions. Thus surraounded there was nothing derogatory to the dignity of the healing art in the exhibition of incubators at Earl’s-court. Also a healthy site was chosen in the broadest part of the gardens where there was plenty of fresh air. The incubators were scientifically ventilated and only received the air taken from the outside. This exhibition had an extraordinary success. On one occasion there were no less than 3600 visitors in a single day. This success, however, has not proved an unmixed blessing. It attracted the attention and cupidity of public showmen, and all sorts of persons, who had no knowledge of the intricate scientific problem involved, started to organise baby incubator shows just as they might have exhibited marionettes, fat women, or any sort of catch-penny monstrosity. It is therefore necessary that we should at once protest that human infirmities do not constitute a fit subject for the public showman to exploit. Incubators are only useful for prematurely-born children, and especially for infants whose lives cannot possibly be saved any other way. Therefore constant medical supervision and the presence day and night of nurses trained in the use of incubators and of wet-nurses is indispensable. To organise all this in a satisfactory manner necessitates a considerable outlay and cannot be lightly undertaken by inexperienced persons. An incubator show, if such there must be, should correspond in every respect to a hospital ward. Now, at the World’s Fair held at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, there is an incubator show where the charge for admittance is only 2d. We fail to see how this small sum can cover the cost of properly trained attendants and of wet-nurses. On visiting this exhibition we were informed that the infants were fed by their mothers -- but how can the mothers attend during the whole of the night at the Agricultural Hall and where is their sleeping accommodation? Then, again, the incubators do not derive their air supply from without. The infants breathe the atmosphere of the interior of the Agricultural Hall, where, apart from the numerous visitors, the whole of Wombwell’s menagerie is kept. Just opposite the incubators there are some leopards and everyone is familiar with the obnoxious odor that arises from cages in which such animals are incarcerated. There is a similar exhibit at the Royal Aquarium, and we cannot think that the dust of bicycle racing, the smoking of the men, and the exhalations from the crowd of people who visit that resort are likely to constitute an atmosphere suitable for prematurely born infants. Of the thousands who daily flock to these two buildings, how many convey pathogenic germs which may enter the incubators since they are not ventilated from without? Is it in keeping with the dignity of science that incubators and living babies should be exhibited amidst the aunt-sallies, the merry-go-rounds, the five-legged mule, the wild animals, the clowns, penny peep-shows, and amidst the glare and noise of a vulgar fair? At Barnum and Bailey's Show also there is an incubator show where, however, the air is brought in from without; but, again, what connexion is there between this serious matter of saving human life and the bearded woman, the dog-faced man, the elephants, the performing horses and pigs, and the clowns and acrobats that constitute the chief attraction to Olympia? But if music-hall proprietors, caterers for refreshments at exhibitions, and public showmen generally who have no sort of scientific training are going to start baby incubator shows in all parts of the country the question arises whether the attention of the sanitary authorities should not be directed to the dangers that may result. It is easy to foresee what is likely to happen. The most obvious way to avoid all difficulties is to obtain the loan of fully developed and healthy babies. The general public would scarcely detect this fraud, and these shows might easily degenerate into a disguised form of baby farming. The sanitary authorities should be particular in inquiring whether there is a proper supply of healthy wet-nurses. Under ordinary circumstances there should be not less than one wet-nurse for every two infants. It should be ascertained whether these nurses sleep on the premises and are awakened every three hours to feed the children. If no efficient check be applied bogus shows will probably be organised, then the mothers will be made to go and feed the children in the daytime and carry them home at night. Even an ordinary infant could not safely stand such a transition. If, however, the infant is really prematurely born it would be little short of homicide to remove it from a warm incubator and carry it home at night through the possibly cold, foggy streets. We are all the more anxious that these incubator shows should be energetically dealt with and rigorously suppressed as the experience acquired on the continent, and notably at the Paris maternity, clearly indicates that incubators when managed by properly qualified persons are instrumental in saving many lives.

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