Guest Author: Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD
When the Dionne quintuplets were born on May 28, 1934, they set off a media frenzy that continued through the 1930s and 1940s. Today, nearly 80 years later, fertility treatments have made multiple births common and modern medicine helps many tiny, premature babies survive. Back then, the Dionne quints made history as the first quintuplets to have lived past infancy.
At the time of their birth, no one expected them to survive. The identical girls were born at home with the help of a rural doctor and two midwives in Callander, Ontario, Canada. Their mom had had six prior full-term pregnancies and had thought it “might be twins.” They weighed a total of 13 pounds, 5 ounces, and were born two months premature.
The quints spent the first two days of their lives in a wicket basket covered with heated blankets. They were massaged occasionally with olive oil, and bottle fed, first with warm water sweetened with corn syrup, and by the second day with 720 Formula, a concoction of cow’s milk, boiled water, corn syrup and a few drops of rum, added to help keep open the passageways to their lungs.
Miraculously, they survived long enough to get needed help from Herman Bundeson, M.D., a premature birth specialist based in Chicago. When Dr. Bundeson heard the news of the birth, he telephoned Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe, the quints’ doctor, and quickly sent an incubator and donated breast milk. Soon members of the Toronto Junior League were collecting breast milk and shipping it each night by train to northern Ontario. As the quints’ needs increased, breast milk was shipped in from Montreal and other cities as well. Five months later, they were weaned on a dairy formula.
A patented soy acidophilus product from Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of the Battlecreek Sanitarium in Michigan, may also have helped, though not from the soy but from the good bacteria. Earlier that year, Dr. Kellogg had discovered that soy milk was a good medium in which to grow the healing acidophilus strain that he liked to plant into the intestinal tracts of his patients. When Dr. Kellogg heard that Marie, the smallest of the Dionne quintuplets, was suffering from bowel trouble, he wired Dr. Dafoe, sent him a supply of this soy acidophilis milk and learned that it had helped her problem. Ever the publicity hound, Dr. Kellogg soon told all who would listen that he’d “cured the quintuplets of serious trouble,” that they used the soy acidophilus supplement regularly, and how it was keeping them alive and in good health. “Dr. Dafoe writes me that he cannot get along without it. When he stops the use of it, the bowels get bad and he has to resume its use at once.”
Over the next couple years, Dr. Kellogg tried in vain to obtain permission to use a photo of the quints to help sell his probiotic product. Perhaps he was exaggerating its importance or just didn’t want to pay for the privilege. Certainly, images of the five girls were used to shill just about everything else – Quaker Oats, Bee Hive corn syrup, Alexander dolls, and many other products. Carnation evaporated milk ads even boasted that the quintuplets had “consumed 2,500 tins” and “practically bathed in the milk.” In truth, the quints refused to drink it!
The parents meanwhile did a booming business selling “magic fertility stones” found on their farm to childless couples who wished to become pregnant. How exactly those stones were used to ensure fertility is not known, but the couple certainly was fertile; six other babies (one of whom died in infancy of pneumonia) were born to the Dionnes prior to the quints, and three more afterwards.
All was not well with the Dionnes, however. A few days after their birth, the father signed a contract allowing the babies to be put on display in the Century of Progress exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair. Although he may probably signed it out of fear of being otherwise unable to support his huge family, the province of Ontario stepped in to declare the Dionnes “unfit parents.” The government took custody, allegedly to protect the babies from exploitation, but soon turned “Quintland” into one of the biggest tourist attractions of the time — right up there with Niagara Falls, Gettysburg and Rockefeller Center. Between 1936 and 1943, the girls lived with three nurses and three policemen in a nine-room nursery with a playground that doubled as a public observation area. More than three million tourists traveled to the remote location in northern Ontario to gawk at them behind one-way mirrors, boosting Ontario’s economy by as much as $500 million.
With Life magazine covers, cameo movie appearances, and regular holiday updates on newsreels, the Dionne quints served as a popular symbol of survival and joy during the Great Depression.
Sadly, the reality of their lives was far from joyous. Émilie died in a convent at age 20 from an epileptic seizure, Marie at age 35 from a blood clot, and Yvonne at age 67 from cancer. Although returned to their parents in 1943, they never developed a close relationship with either parent or most of their other siblings, and later accused their father of sexual abuse. After leaving home at age 18, three of the sisters married and had children, one giving birth to twins. But Annette and Cécile divorced, and Marie was living alone, separated from her husband at the time of her death.
In 1997, Annette, Cécile and Yvonne wrote a wise, compassionate and eloquent letter to the parents of the McGaughey septuplets. It was published in the December 1, 1997 issue of Time magazine and is included here in full to serve as warning to parents of children born today in multiple births.
Dear Bobbi and Kenny,
If we emerge momentarily from the privacy we have sought all our adult lives, it is only to send a message to the McCaughey family. We three would like you to know we feel a natural affinity and tenderness for your children. We hope your children receive more respect than we did. Their fate should be no different from that of other children. Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products.
Our lives have been ruined by the exploitation we suffered at the hands of the government of Ontario, our place of birth. We were displayed as a curiosity three times a day for millions of tourists. To this day we receive letters from all over the world. To all those who have expressed their support in light of the abuse we have endured, we say thank you. And to those who would seek to exploit the growing fame of these children, we say beware.
We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered by our childhood experience. If this letter changes the course of events for these newborns, then perhaps our lives will have served a higher purpose.
Sincerely, Annette, Cécile and Yvonne Dionne
May 28, 2013 is Annette and Cécile’s 79th birthday, an event that we expect will be celebrated quietly and out of the public eye, and that we hope will be a happy one.
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About Our Guest Author
Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN, is The Naughty NutritionistTM because of her ability to outrageously and humorously debunk nutritional myths.
She is author of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food, endorsed by Drs. Joseph Mercola, Larry Dossey, Jonathan Wright, Doris Rapp, and other leading health experts. She is Vice President of the Weston A. Price Foundation and winner of its 2005 Integrity in Science Award.
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- Berton, Pierre. The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama (NY Norton, 1977)
- Gaffney, Dennis. “The Story of the Dionne Quintuplets”
- INFACT Canada. Human Milk Banking. http://www.infactcanada.ca/human%20milk%20banking.pdf
- Shurtleff, William and Akiko Ayoyagi. “Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and Battle Creek Foods: Work with Soy”