The Strange Case of Dr. Couney brings together compelling glimpses of the history around his story: Couney’s jostling medical predecessors; the classism and racism behind infant care; the spread of eugenics rhetoric; and the rise of the cheap-thrill spectacle add depth to the broad strokes of global events. (Raffel intersperses anecdotes of preemie success stories with reminders that two generations of them were raised into world wars.)

Couney, with his fancy suits and warm affect, is an appropriately flashy entry point for all of it, though Raffel quickly seems to become more interested in the conundrum he posed for both fairgoers and doctors. He carried the social stigma of the midway man — crammed on the boardwalk among the sideshows, charging admission, rather than housed in the scientific exhibit halls. But the survival rate for the premature babies at his “sideshow” was orders of magnitude higher than at hospitals. And Couney relished a good photo op, but the audience he courted most fervently was doctors; he seems to have wanted nothing less than to convince the establishment to adopt his methods.

That mystery — why, exactly, did these methods not become respectable sooner? — threads its way through Raffel’s interviews and research, and quickly becomes a more immediate question than the details of Couney’s deceptions.

I reviewed The Strange Case of Dr. Couney for NPR.org.