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  • Baby Incubators and the Prosthetic Womb
  • Nadja Durbach (bio)

In the final years of Victoria's reign, the incubator-baby show was all the rage. Making their British debut at the Victorian Era Exhibition at Earl's Court in the summer of 1897, baby incubators quickly became a craze, appearing at a variety of popular entertainment venues (Silverman 129-31; Baker 86-106; Barr). According to the Era, they were visited by many members of the royal family as well as by "thousands of interested spectators" ("As the [End Page 23] season advances..." 19). Their popularity prompted the formation of at least two joint stock companies for the purpose of exhibiting the genuine article and encouraged many "unscrupulous imitators" to tour their fake contraptions around fairs and resorts (Schenkein and Coney; "Wanted to Purchase" 27; Board of Trade). But in the United Kingdom at least, this popular interest in baby incubators did not last long. By the first years of the new century, the novelty had worn off, the Baby Incubators Syndicate and the Eureka Incubators Syndicate had both dissolved, and showmen were desperately trying to rid themselves of these cumbersome prosthetic wombs.

Enthusiasm for displays of baby incubators came in part from anxieties around the declining birth rate. The baby incubator had been devised in France in the 1870s, a period that witnessed rapid depopulation (Silverman 127-8; Baker 45). By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain was experiencing a similar problem: in 1871 there had been 34.7 births per thousand; by 1901 this figure had fallen to 28.5. This was partly due to an escalation in premature births, which rose forty per cent between 1886 and 1896 (Ballantyne 1200; "Use of Incubators" 1491). "It may not be possible exactly to define their value to the State and community," argued the British obstetrician J.W. Ballantyne, but there existed a "pressing need to conserve the lives of [premature] infants," for "economic as well as sentimental" reasons (1200). The incubator was extolled as key to this process, for within their "glass cases," "immature specimens" of human life could now be reared to maturity ("Immature Infants"). An article in a popular periodical explicitly described the baby incubator as a "hot-house," suggesting that infants could be cultivated like orchids (Smith 772). Another, noting that these devices derived from poultry incubators, facetiously queried, "Do they hatch children, nowadays, like eggs?" ("Incubators for Infants"). An 1898 comic song played on these nationalistic fears of depopulation with its lyric "I hope to breed a nation by the means of incubation" ("The Infant Incubator"). Although the sinister nature of breeding or hatching children seems to have fallen on deaf ears, these artificial wombs were not entirely without controversy. Their public display generated a variety of concerns, some explicitly about substitution.

Ballantyne described the arrival of the infant prematurely "expelled from the uterus" as both a shock to its bodily systems and a form of culture shock: "He is like some dweller in the hot plains of India who has been transported in a moment of time on some 'magic carpet of Tangu' to the chill summits of the 'frosty Caucasus'" (1196). While it was impractical to keep what an article in the Lancet similarly termed these "unwelcome little strangers" in an artificial version of amniotic fluid for fear of aspiration, incubators were kept moist and warm and as aseptic as possible in an attempt to reproduce the comfort and safety of the uterine environment ("Immature Infants"). They were ventilated by holes, which one reporter described as "orifices," thus furthering the suggestion that the incubator was in fact a stand-in for the maternal body that had ceased to perform its reproductive duties ("Incubators for Infants"). [End Page 24]

Press coverage of these artificial wombs championed their accomplishments and in the process downplayed the importance of the female body to fetal development. By the 1890s, there was a wide variety of models available, many of which were celebrated for their portability, accuracy, and simplicity. The baby incubator, asserted the British Medical Journal, could now "be used without any special skilled knowledge" ("Reports and Analyses and Descriptions" 348; Baker 66-85). Similarly, the Lancet...


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