1857 – The First Baby Incubators

Elle Zhan Wei
June 14th 2017

Premature birth normally means an under-developed baby who has not yet acquired the necessary organs maturity to survive outside of mother's womb. An incubator that partially acts as a womb extension could make the difference between life and death for the fragile newborn.

It is vital that premature babies are kept in a consistent, appropriate temperature which simulates the environment of a womb, with regular feeding. Depending on the stage of development of lungs and digestion system of the newborn, exact measures must be taken to ensure the livelihood of the new life. Various machinery and medical expertise in different areas might be required for a successful process. The earliest anecdotal evidence of infant incubator dates back to 1722:

"Among the records of celebrated children Baillet reports that of Fortunio Liceri, whose mother gave birth to him long before the ordinary time during the fatigues and shocks of a sea voyage. This fetus was no larger than the palm of your hand, but his father who was a physician, having examined it, had carried it to the place which was to be the end of his voyage. There he had other physicians see it. They found that there was lacking nothing essential to life, and his father undertook to finish Nature's task and to work at the formation of the child with the same skill that men exhibited in hatching chickens in Egypt. He instructed a nurse in all that she had to do in the maintaining of exactly measured artificial heat and the requirements for his general care and feeding. He lived to be seventy-nine years of age and distinguished himself in science by a large number of works".

From the 1800s onwards, more and more baby incubator concepts and uses start to emerge. Many argue the origin of the very first baby incubator should be attributed to M. le Denucé, professor of medicine at l'École de Médicine de Bordeaux, although Clementovsky stated a similar model was in use in St. Petersburg as early as 1835.

The first baby incubator recorded. This model consists of a doubled-walled tub made to be filled with warm water as a way to maintain a constant temperature for the newborn. By M. le Denucé, 1857.

A similar incubator model with the same principle was in use in a clinic in Leipzig since 1860. The infant mortality rate of this clinic was brought down by 18%. Credé, 1866.

Infant incubators were similar to chicken incubators. This incubator was built by Odile Martin, director of the Paris Zoo. The incubator was installed in the Maternity Hospital of Paris in 1881. Tarnier, 1860.

The Tarnier Incubator is the first closed incubator which may be qualified as modern. Its principle was used uninterruptedly with new versions varied only in minor details. Today, our technology allows us to keep a newborn as early as 28 weeks (a normal gestation period is 40 weeks) healthy. If we consider the artificial womb as the next generation of baby incubators, then these examples would be ancestors to a possible future yet to come. The artificial womb might seem uncanny to us now, but it could go through generations of changes till someday we might consider it a normal procedure. Just like these incubators.

This article is part of the Artificial Womb research project by NNN. The goal of this project is to develop thought-provoking scenarios that facilitate a much-needed discussion about the way technology radically alters our attitude towards reproduction, gender, relationships and love in the 21st century. We highly value your feedback or input, contributions can be sent to womb@nextnature.net.

Images: Neonatology.org

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Should men be able to give birth to children?


Koert van Mensvoort: Is the artificial womb frankenstein-like symbol of (male) engineers trying to steal the magical womb from women? Or… is it a feminist project and needed to reach through equality between the sexes? I personally lean towards the latter. To me it feels like progress if a girl can tell a guy to carry the womb for a change.

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