The word’s first incubators: not for the faint-hearted

Here is an interesting story I came across recently – it may or may not have a grain of truth in it. I have not been able to substantiate the legend with further historical sources, but it is too good not to share.

Allegedly, when emperor Leopold I was born as a premature baby in 1640 in Vienna, it was almost certain he would die. There were no incubators at the time. The solution was to slaughter pigs, disembowel them and place the tiny baby Leopold in the animal carcass. To keep him warm, a fresh pig had to be slaughtered every 15 minutes. This procedure was continued for weeks, and most of the many pigs slaughtered during this time came from north of the Danube.

Leopold I (1640-1705)

Leopold I (1640-1705)

Leopold survived and, out of gratitude, he granted the farmers the right to bring their produce into Vienna without paying a toll on the bridge (Realis 1848: 140). The village, previously named Eipeldau, was renamed Leopoldau and is today a part of Vienna’s Floridsdorf district.

The story raises a number of questions – why was Leopold not kept warm simply by placing him on the mother’s (or the wet nurse’s) chest? Was putting babies in animal carcasses a practice actually ever done in the history of childrearing? What do you think – fact or fiction? If you have heard of similar practices, please let me know.

I have heard stories of horse carcasses used to keep people from freezing to death, for instance in Napoleon’s or Hitler’s Russian campaigns. The theme was taken up in various films such as Star Wars. Perhaps most recently, Leonardo DiCaprio slept in an animal carcass in ‘The Revenant’ (2015).

Modern incubators for the neonatal care of premature babies started to be developed around the middle of the 19th century in various places in Europe; Alexandre Lion’s incubator, patented in 1889, achieved an infant survival rate of 72%. Not too bad for the time.


Schwein gehabt! Wie Leopoldau zu seinem Namen kam … Die Floridsdorfer Zeitung

Realis. 1848. Curiositäten- und Memorabilien Lexicon von Wien. Wien: Anton Köhler.


About Katharina

Katharina is a prehistoric archaeologist working at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests include the archaeology of the human body, gender, identity and personhood as expressed through funerary practices and art. She specialises in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe. As a mother of two young boys, she gathered some practical experience in addition to her theoretical interest in motherhood.
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