The Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 to 1934 planted a city of possibility on 424 acres of Chicago’s shoreline near the museum campus. As they strolled through the fair, dubbed “A Century of Progress,” attendees could marvel at modern architecture, dream cars, a German zeppelin, homes of tomorrow and even a “Midget City.”
The Midway was filled with pop-up nightclubs featuring performances by future greats such as Judy Garland. Amidst the nightlife scene was famed burlesque dancer Sally Rand. Right next door, whilst Rand performed her famous fan dance, for 25 cents, behind a pane of glass, onlookers could view premature babies resting in a new contraption, the incubator.
The brainchild of Martin A. Couney, a pioneer in the field of neonatology, the incubator was meant to provide a controlled environment for the care and protection of fledgling babies. While skepticism remains in regard to his credentials as a trained medical professional, Couney’s incubators offered a life-saving option for premature babies, who at the time, were not seen as medical priorities.
Fraternal premature twins Jean and Jane Harbaugh were lucky enough to be given the necessary attention by Couney as one of his “incubator babies,” giving both girls originally weighing less than 4 pounds a fighting chance.
Now, they are 84 and the McHenry County residents – Jean Harrison of Algonquin and Jane Umbarger of McHenry – are featured in a new book from New York-based author Dawn Raffel, “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies.”
The twins were born in 1934. During the Great Depression, their parents, Gerald and Grace Harbaugh, had to find other means of medical care for what ended up to be their daughter, plus one surprise.
Couney’s staff, free of charge, cared for incubator babies. An aunt of the twins was a nurse at the now closed Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago and through connections was able to get the girls into the exhibit.
“Mom and dad didn’t even know they were having twins,” Umbarger said. “Jean was born first and then I was born and when they brought me out to show my dad, he said, ‘Please don’t go in there to get another one!’ ”
Their older sister, Geraldine, wasn’t exactly thrilled with the extra addition, either.
“My sister was ‘it’ for 4-and-a-half years,” Harrison said. “When my mother and father took her to see us and she looked at us, she said ‘but why do we gotta have two?’ ”
Now, Jean Harrison and Jane Umbarger, the 84-year-olds can be seen as a bit of a credit to Couney’s experiment, which was heavily criticized and disregarded by the medical field of his time.
“I think it cost 25 cents to come see us. It looked like we were in little cook stoves. At that time, the thinking was, if you’re premature, let nature take its course. In the same way, if you were old, don’t try to save them. Which now I’m getting to that second part,” Harrison joked.
The women did not know about their involvement in the World’s Fair until they were around 12 years old, as the subject was not spoken about often in the home. The family was not aware their participation in the project was any big deal. It wasn’t until 1953 when, being the close twin sisters they are, the two had a double wedding day, which ended up including some unexpected guests.
“We were really surprised,” Umbarger said. “Our announcement ended up in papers across the country and some people just showed up. I think mom and dad were surprised, too, when these people showed up at our wedding that we didn’t even know but they had seen us in the incubators, so they wanted to see us grown up.”
The two settled into married life and children and at 40-years-old, they made yet another discovery at an expo in Elk Grove Village. The two were shocked when they came to find out they were actually on display in the fair’s midway amongst the performers instead of the science building.
“Our parents told us we were in the incubators and that my father would bring breast milk for us every morning because he worked at First National Bank in Chicago, that’s all we were told,” Harrison said. “We just assumed we were in the science building because it sounds like it would be seen as a big science project.”
What was thought to be Couney’s “science project,” which has even been referred to by some as a “freak show,” is now a staple of neonatal units throughout the world.
Raffel released her latest book on July 31, including Harrison and Umbarger’s story.
“I would like to give Dr. Couney credit for what he did and start a discussion for how we make decisions about which lives we value and how we use technology to save lives,” Raffel said. “It took 40 years to get incubators into hospitals. Saving the lives of these preemies was not the priority and we still make these decisions about whose lives we save.”
This is Raffel’s fifth book, which is a diversion from the typical writing style and subject matter of her previous works.
“I just became obsessed with this story,” Raffel said. “I discovered it when I was doing research on the World’s Fair. I saw an image of an incubator exhibition and I thought it was so strange and it just stuck with me. That led me down a four-year rabbit hole. I don’t have a personal connection to preemies, but I thought the story was so strange and interesting that it had to be told.”
Raffel will present images from her latest book as well offer interview answers at 6 p.m. Sept. 6 at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. Harrison and Umbarger are to attend the event and will be introduced to attendees. Raffel and the twins also will be interviewed live on WGN televsion that morning at 11 a.m.
Harrison and Umbarger said they are forever grateful for Dr. Couney and they hope this book will clear his name and present him as the caring and wonderful person he was to want to save all of these babies.
“What he did to save all those babies was just out of this world and thank God for him,” Umbarger said. “Without him, we may not even be here. Who knows?”
Harrison and Umbarger said they hope they will be able to one day find a fellow incubator baby who was at the Chicago World’s Fair. They have not yet been successful in their search.
When asked what the future might bring, Umbarger’s husband, Jim, joked that he looks forward to having the Northwest Herald come back and do a follow-up on the two ladies when they turn 90, to which the ladies laughed.
For now, the two said they are enjoying each day and appreciating all they have to look back on.
“I love memories. I don’t care if I forget what I did yesterday, just don’t let me forget the good old days,” Harrison said, with Umbarger nodding in agreement.