This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Friday, July 10, 2009

History of Human Incubators

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

While at Myrtle Beach this summer we visited the Ripley's Believe it or Not Aquarium. Of all things, they had a display of various incubators, including the history of human incubators.

These infants were put on display in a store-front-like setting (as shown in the photo) and people were charged admission to see them. Having had my own daughter in a neonatal intensive care unit after her birth, I was torn between being disturbed by this and the fascinating story ideas that kept popping into my head. I did a little research to satisfy my curiosity and
realized the good intentions behind the financing and awareness these early inventors were trying to bring to light. Their early inventions could be contributed to the many preemies' lives that are saved today. It's been a long process to get our technology where we are, and I am very grateful.

As early as the 1860's - 1880's, European scientists were trying hard to come up with a human incubator that would decrease the mortality rate of preemie babies. In 1860 Tanier of France, constructed the first enclosed incubator similar to what was used for chickens, and is most similar to modern incubators of today. It was installed in the Maternity Hospital of Paris in 1881. Warning: These first incubators resemble what looks like an old-fashioned stove. (See photos in the links below.)

Berthod was Tanier's intern, who continued to study how to improve the incubators being used. He wrote and published an important thesis in 1887. His work proved the importance of preventing hypothermia of newborn infants.

French physician and the son of an inventor, Alexandre Lion, patented his incubator in 1889. It provided a see-through glass cabinet for the baby, as well as an automatic regulating heating system that didn't require constant personnel for maintenance. All staff needed to do was feed, wash and change the infants. It also contained a ventilation system that was better for the infants' respiratory system. A study was conducted and his invention received an endorsement of a 72% survival rate.

Lion's incubator was very expensive and few could afford it. Therefore, he developed a revenue building idea of hosting charity incubator events. These infants were actually put on display like in a store-front setting on busy boulevards throughout France. People were charged an admission fee. As early as 1896 and throughout the early 1900's, his exhibits were on display in various places and used as sideshows. It was advertised as "The Amazing Mechanized Mom".

While his methods may seem a little drastic compared to today's standards, it was a turning point for how preemies were treated. In the early 1800's it was thought that newborns needed to be "hardened" into life and given ice-cold baths. It was no wonder the mortality rate was so high. Doctors were reluctant to waste resources on preemies who had an even slimmer chance of surviving. As a result, desperate parents offered their babies to be in Lion's displays in exchange for free medical care in the hope of saving their child's life. These scientist showmen managed to indeed bring awareness to saving preemies lives and in the process were successful in advancing this part of the medical profession. The downside of their success encouraged money-hungry imitators that produced higher death rates until the sideshows began receiving wide criticism.

Other Sources:
Premature and Cogenitally Diseased Infants

The Lion Incubator


Wow! How fascinating. I had no idea there was such a thing! It's amazing what history can teach us. Thanks for sharing! Have a wonderful weekend.

oh my word! It makes me horrified to think of someone dipping a newborn baby into ice water!

Hi Jennifer -

This article brought to mind a tidbit I heard about early incubators. The increased oxygen sometimes caused blindness. Someone finally developed special eyedrops to protect the babies' eyes.

Thanks for another interesting post.

Susan :)

How fascinating! It makes me so thankful for our current NICU's!

Wow, what a piece of history! Practices like this highlight the problem with private, for-profit medical care! I hope our nation can finally come up with a plan for taking good care of every child born here, regardless of how much money their parents have. Groups like Health Care for America Now! are building connections among religious, secular, and interfaith groups to provide quality health care for everyone. It's about time!!