Why did Seattle display babies in incubators at the World’s Fair?

Baby incubator exhibit on the Pay Streak at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition
Photo by Frank H. Nowell and courtesy of UW Special Collections.

By Rachel Solomon

The Northwest has long been known for its technological innovations – from airplanes to software. More than a hundred years ago, Seattle was showing off a brand-new invention involving babies.

At the city’s first World’s Fair in 1909, called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, there was a Wild West exhibit, rollercoasters, concessions  and right next door, were premature babies … in incubators … on display.

“It was a bit of a freak show – there’s no doubt about that,” says Lorraine McConaghy, a historian at the Museum of History and Industry.


A modern-day baby incubator at Swedish Medical Center. <em>Photo by Rachel Solomon</em>

A new wonder

At the time, incubators were a brand-new science. Similar exhibits were popular attractions at fairs around the country. Back then, the technology wasn’t even available to the wealthiest families.

“These babies ought to have been dead,” McConaghy says. “There’s that sort of sense that here science was intervening to keep these babies alive.”

People stood in line for hours, paying 25 cents to see the babies in these new contraptions. There were a dozen newborns of all different races. People knew their names. It was news in the paper when little Thomas or little Susan graduated from the incubator and could be cared for as a normal baby, McConaghy says.

The exhibit was a big moneymaker.

Supposedly, nurses and doctors were on hand to monitor the babies – but McConaghy says they may have just been people dressed to look like nurses and doctors.


Babies with elephants

There were risks. One baby died. And at a fair in St. Louis, half the preemies on display died from a diarrhea epidemic.

Oddly, no one protested. There was one article in a medical journal suggesting perhaps there was something wrong with putting babies next to elephants and the rest of the circus menagerie.

One hundred years later, people in the medical profession in Seattle look back aghast.


Dr. Terry Sweeney, medical director of neonatology at Swedish Medical Center, stands next to a modern-day baby incubator. <em>Photo by Rachel Solomon</em>

The modern sensitivity

Dr. Douglas Diekema is a bioethicist at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

“This type of exhibit would not be considered appropriate today, particularly for a medical condition or something that made someone look different from the rest of the population,” Diekema says. “That sensitivity seems to be something that’s developed in the past 100 years.”

Others, like Dr. Terry Sweeney, say we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Sweeney is the medical director of neonatology at Swedish Medical Center.

“While we would never condone anything like this now, I think we have to be careful condemning it because at the root of it, there’s still some very basic compassionate care taking place,” he says.

Sweeney and Diekema say the incubator technology itself hasn’t changed all that much over the years. The primary purpose of an incubator is still to keep babies warm; the devices just have more controls and more ability to monitor temperature.


Privacy takes over

But today, patient privacy is paramount, especially when it comes to children. It’s hard to even see inside the neonatal intensive care unit at Swedish Medical Center. I can tell that everything in the room is blue and pink, and there are six babies in there right now. It’s so quiet—completely unlike the boisterous fair environment from 100 years ago.

Sweeney points to an open crib nearest to the door and explains that the baby inside is wrapped up in blankets and no longer needs and incubator. I can see its tiny feet peeking out and hear it start softly crying. It’s hard to imagine these babies being put on display for people to line up and gawk at.


Ethical debate vs. advancement of science

So could something like that happen today? Lorraine McConaghy says not only could it—it has. She points to the “Bodies” exhibit that has traveled around the world, parading the organs of deceased Chinese people in odd contortions.

“[The babies and the ‘Bodies’ exhibit] are both quite graphic for their day; they’re sort of shocking in their day,” she says. “There’s definitely a freak show aspect to both of these exhibitions.”

But unlike the babies in incubators, the Bodies exhibit has sparked an ethical debate. In the summer of 2010, the City Council voted to ban it from returning to the Seattle.

The science of putting babies on display did help jumpstart people’s attitudes toward medicine. A century ago, fair-goers who saw the exhibit went back to their small towns in the Pacific Northwest and knew there was a way to keep premature babies alive – they had seen it with their own eyes.




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