'Incubator twins': Once on display as 'living babies,' sisters celebrate 80th birthdays

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Twin sisters Jane Umbarger and Jean Harrison just turned 80 years old, but to many, they’ll always be known as incubator babies.

Umbarger of McHenry and Harrison of Algonquin drew national attention in 1953 when the two had a double wedding. Their engagement pictures were featured in newspapers and magazines, including Time, and the nation remembered them as a set of twins among the hundreds of premature infants placed in incubators on display at Chicago’s Century of Progress exposition in 1933 and 1934.

With an outdoor sign promoting “Baby Incubators With Living Babies,” the exhibit drew thousands of spectators looking for distraction from hard times during the Depression. Jean’s own husband, Larry Harrison – age 4 at the time – walked through the exhibit himself, and now jokes that he spotted his future wife there.

It was a time when incubators weren’t mainstream and were somewhat controversial.

Not sanctioned for use in hospitals to treat premature babies, the incubators were put on display as fairground attractions hosted by their pioneer, Dr. Martin Couney.

“We had people come to the wedding just to see us because they remembered us from the World Fair,” said Harrison, days after she and her sister hosted a joint 80th birthday party, drawing their entire families to Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry.

“We were kind of like a freak show,” she said of the incubator display.

“We really were right in the midway [of the exposition],” Umbarger added.

The twin sisters hadn’t realized what a spectacle the display had been until they were in their 20s and came across a World Fair display. Their parents never really talked about it.

“We happened to see a picture of the incubators that we were in,” Umbarger said.

Instead of the science building – where the sisters assumed the incubators were placed – the contraptions Harrison described as “like little stoves” were put in the amusement section of the exposition.

Nearby was burlesque dancer Sally Rand’s booth. She was known for her ostrich feather fan and ballon bubble dances, and is reported to have been arrested. Dated articles say she told arresting policemen at the time that Couney’s babies wore fewer clothes than her dancers and she couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Visitors would come to see Rand, then stop by to see the “living babies.”

At the time, Harrison said, “People didn’t really believe in incubators.”

They were expensive and hospitals were reluctant to invest in them, with some back then believing it wasn’t worth the time and money to try to help premature infants they believed wouldn’t survive.

Couney, a German native who studied medicine in France, first exhibited the incubators at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896.

The doctor emigrated to America in 1903 and settled in Coney Island, exhibiting the incubators there every summer for the next 40 years. They became so popular, the site was nicknamed “Couney’s Island.” His own daughter Hildegarde was born prematurely and spent the first three months of her life in an exhibit incubator.

Born seven weeks premature on Aug. 17, 1934, and weighing 3 pounds, 14 ounces, Umbarger spent five weeks in the incubator. Harrison – born weighing 3 pounds, 12 ounces – spent six weeks in the exhibit.

The two said their mother – who was at home with their now 84-year-old older sister – would pump breast milk. Their father would take it with him to work at the First National Bank in Chicago, and representatives of Couney’s exhibit would pick it up to deliver it to the nurses.

Couney staffed his exhibits like small hospital wards with a team of nurses. He didn’t charge the parents unless they were wealthy, his expenses covered by the admission costs to the shows.

Back then, in the first half of the 20th century, premature babies had low survival rates. Their best chance for survival was the incubator sideshow.

The sisters believe it was an aunt working as a nurse who suggested they become part of Couney’s exhibit.

“We may not have been here if it wasn’t for her,” Umbarger said.

“It was a blessing to us,” Harrison added.

Neither endured any lasting health effects from being born prematurely. Umbarger has six children, 14 grandchildren and “going on” 11 great-grandchildren, while Harrrison has three children, nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

All gathered to watch them cut the cake and sip margaritas on their birthday.

“Our mother never expected twins,” Umbarger said.

“She thought she was having them, but the doctor said, ‘I only hear one heartbeat,” Harrison said.

“It was probably yours,” Umbarger added with a laugh.

The two grew up close, answering to each other’s names, dressing alike, drawing pictures with their fingers on each other’s backs before falling asleep in the same bed at night.

“We depended on each other a lot,” Harrison said.

They remembered the time Umbarger got sap in her hair while climbing a tree. Because she needed a haircut, so did Harrison, braiding her long hair before it was chopped off.

“I still have that braid,” she said.

“After all these years, you never told me that,” Umbarger said. “Maybe mine was too messed up to keep the braid.”

Harrison has written letters to various media to try to find others who started their lives in Couney’s incubators, but she hasn’t had any success.

She did get a response from a prison inmate once, she said. “My kids told me, ‘If you write to him you’re grounded,’” she remembered. “That was in 2000.”

The two are fascinated by the history, with Harrison creating a book to pass along to generations of the family. She said she owes a lot of her knowledge of that time to a fictional book, “The Hatbox Baby” by Carrie Brown, based loosely on a Couney-like character who ends up with an abandoned preemie.

“I think it’s interesting,” Harrison said of the incubators’ evolution. “I was shocked to find out we were a freak show, but then again, it’s something that will never happen again.”

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