Multiple births happen very infrequently. The odds decrease dramatically the more children are born at once. The odds of twins is 1 in 250 pregnancies. The odds of triplets are about 1 in 62,000. The odds of quadruplets are one in 15 million.
And the odds of quintuplets, five children, is an astonishing 1 in 55 million.
In fact, the first case of natural quintuplets surviving infancy occurred 86 years ago during the Great Depression.
Learn more about the Dionne Quintuplets on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
While still not what you would call common, multiple births, especially extreme multiple births occur more frequently today than they did in the past.
For starters, fertility drugs have made extreme multiple births more possible. You’ve probably all seen the reality TV shows of families that had six to eight children at once. In every one of these cases, the multiple births were the result of taking fertility medication which drastically increases the odds of multiple births.
The odds of multiple births beyond twins amongst humans, however, are exceedingly rare in nature.
Not only are the odds of it happening rare, but the odds of survival diminish dramatically the more children which are born at once.
The average length of human gestation is approximately 40 weeks. The average length of gestation for quintuplets, for example, is only 29 weeks. That means that almost every large occurrence of multiple births will be premature.
Prior to the advent of modern medicine, the odds of survival of premature births were very low.
That is why it wasn’t until the 20th century when the world’s first case of surviving quintuplets was born.
On May 28, 1934, in Callender Ontario, five identical girls were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne. The children became known as the Dionne Quintuplets.
The mother, Elzire, assumed she was probably carrying twins, but in no way considered that five children were even possible. The local doctor, Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe delivered the five children with the assistance of two midwives.
The five girls were named Annette, Cécile, Émilie, Marie, and Yvonne.
The brother of the father, Olivia, contacted a local newspaper as soon as they found out that quintuplets had been delivered, and the editor of the newspaper sent out the news on the wire.
Within hours, the quintuplets were a story around the world.
The girls were born in a farmhouse that didn’t have electricity. Moreover, the family already had five children. Having five children at once became a huge financial burden, especially in the middle of the depression.
When journalists came up to northern Ontario to photograph the girls, they brought with them incubators which probably saved their lives.
Other people from around the world began sending money and gifts to help out the family.
Within days, the family was confronted with the first of what would plague the girls throughout their childhood. The Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago wanted to put the girls on display.
The girls’ father signed the contract but then tried to get out of it only days later. He claimed that the mother hadn’t signed it, so the contract wasn’t valid.
To get out of the contract, just two months after the girls were born, the parents signed guardianship of the girls over to the Red Cross for two years. This would get them out of the contract so the girls’ wouldn’t be put on display, and it also solved the problem of their medical expenses. The Red Cross would pay for everything, including nurses and food.
The parents did eventually make a trip to the Chicago Fair and did appearances as the parents of the quintuplets. The children did not attend.
However, that seemingly innocuous trip by the parents became the basis for the event, which changed the girls’ lives forever.
The premier of Ontario at the time, Mitchell Hepburn, used this as an excuse to pass legislation in the Ontario Parliament that gave custody of the girls to the province until the age of 18. They were basically taken by the government without the consent or approval of the parents.
The supposed reason for taking the children was so that they wouldn’t be exploited and so they could be protected from promoters.
The irony and hypocrisy of this would soon become evident.
Soon after custody was transferred to the government, they created a nursery across the street from where they were born. It was called the Dafoe Hospital and Nursery, after the doctor that delivered them. Make note of the name.
The government, quickly realizing the interest in the girls, thought they could use the girls to develop tourism in the area.
The nursery and playground had public viewing areas.
The girls almost never left the nursery. They had nurses and teachers attend to them in the facility.
Over time, an entire industry developed around the quintuplets. The parents ran a souvenir shop across from the nursery.
Over 3,000 visitors per day visited the facility, soon dubbed Quintland. Between 1936 and 1943, it had a total of over 3,000,000 visitors. It was basically a human zoo.
The parents ran one of five souvenir stands selling quint memorabilia in town.
By 1937, Quintland was more popular than Niagara Falls. That year they also made the cover of Time Magazine.
The government, which had taken custody of them in order to protect the girls from promoters, signed the girls up to promote a long list of products.
Quaker Oats, Lysol Disinfectant, Libby’s Baby Food, Palmolive Soap, Colgate Dental Cream, Karo Corn Syrup, Life Savers, and Baby Ruth candy bars all used the Dionne Quintuplets for marketing.
Celebrities came to visit Quint land to get their photos taken with the girls.
Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, James Cagney, and Mae West all came to visit. Amelia Earhart came just weeks before her last flight around the world.
The girls appeared in three Hollywood films between 1936 and 1938.
In theory, there was a trust fund established for the girls where all the money was supposed to go, but anything even remotely associated with the quintuplets was paid for out of the trust. If a government official came to visit, their visit was paid for out of the girls’ trust fund.
Dr. Dafoe, the doctor who delivered the girls, was the chairman of the board which oversaw the girls, for which he received a salar. He appeared in advertisements, had a newspaper column called “The Quintuplets and the Care of Your Children”, and wrote a book. It was estimated that he made the equivalent of what today would be $2.5 million from his association with the quintuplets.
The province of Ontario was estimated to have made over $50 million from taxes and revenue associated with the boost in tourist to see the girls….and in the name of protecting them from exploitation.
In 1943, after a great deal of public pressure, the girls were given back to their parents, along with their trust fund. The parents build an enormous 19 bedroom mansion with the money.
The previous nine years had made a reunion with their parents difficult. The parents had little contact with the girls since they were born. They viewed them as a source of money, and there were reports of physical and sexual abuse.
All five of the girls left home when they turned 18 and had little contact with their parents thereafter.
Emilie wanted to become a nun. At the age of 20, while she was still a postulant, she had a seizure while she was sleeping and accidentally suffocated.
Marie died at the age of 35 after developing a blood clot in her brain.
Despite the millions of dollars made by the girls while they were young, they all had financial difficulties later in life as they saw almost none of the money as adults.
In 1998 they sued the government of Ontario and eventually settled for $4 million.
Soon after, in 2001, Yvonne passed away at the age of 67.
Cécile and Annette are still around at the age of 86. Cécile’s son stole her share of the settlement money and has never been heard from again. Ironically, she is once again a ward of the state.
Both women have spoken out against the economic exploitation of children whether it’s child actors, kidfluencers, child youtube stars, or other families with large multiple births.
The women just want to make sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to anyone else.
Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Mackala.
The associate producer is Thor Thomsen.
Today’s five-star reviews come from Jason Falls over on Podchaser. He writes:
Gary has traveled the world and shares all the neat things he’s learned in short episodes that just fill your head with interesting facts and tidbits. It’s not a travel podcast (he’s a world-renown travel blogger) but a history and knowledge podcast. I love it. Helps me polish my trivia knowledge.
Thanks, Jason. You can actually listen to a recent interview I did with Jason on his Winfluence podcast, where I talk about some of the business stuff behind this podcast. You can find a link to the show in the show notes.