Thursday, May 28, 2009

75 years ago today

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the birth of the Dionne Quintuplets. Annette, Cecile, Marie, Emilie, and Yvonne Dionne were born to Elzire and Oliva Dionne of Corbeil, Ontario (just outside of North Bay Rock City, for those of you keeping track) on May 28th, 1934. They were the first (documented) set of quintuplets to survive infancy; they were also the first and only set of identical female quintuplets. (The odds of that are unbelievable--the initial egg splitting, then each of those splitting again, and one of those splitting a third time. It boggles the mind. The "sixth" likely died in the womb.) Their combined birth weight was less than 14 lbs., and when you consider that they were born two months premature in a farmhouse, in 1934, to a mother who didn't know she was pregnant with multiples...the odds against their survival were substantial.

The story of the Quints is fascinating. The Ontario government took control of their lives when they were four months old, establishing the girls as wards of the Crown, and taking them to live away from their parents and their siblings on the grounds that Elzire and Oliva were unfit parents (though the Dionnes still got to keep their other five children). The girls were raised in a compound by the doctor who "delivered" them, Dr. Allan Dafoe (he was assisted by two midwives) and a few other caregivers. The compound, colloquially known as Quintland, included an observation deck where tourists would come daily to watch the girls playing inside the compound.

The Quints were big business. It's estimated that they earned approximately $1 million in 1934, and brought approximately $51 million to Ontario in tourism-related revenue. I know that sounds like a lot of money, but you need to think of it in perspective of 1934--you know, THE MIDDLE OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION. The girls' images were used to sell just about every product imaginable, including corn syrup, baby food, toys, candy, toothpaste, Lysol, Heinz, Victory Bonds, Carnation Milk, and cod liver oil. And, of course, this doesn't even begin to touch the commemorative merchandise that was produced to sell to the tourists.

The other half of the story is a very sad one. The girls' parents did eventually win back custody from the Crown, in 1943, and with it access to the girls' money. Having grown up separately, they had to be re-integrated into a family that treated the girls differently from the other children. Once they reached 18, all five left home and had very limited contact with their parents. Marie and Emilie both died quite young, and Yvonne passed away from cancer a few years ago. Before her death, she, along Annette and Cecile, revealed that they believed that their father had sexually abused them as teenagers.

With the way that our culture currently treats multiples--particularly with John and Kate Plus 8 and their reality show ilk--the story of the Quints is well worth remembering. I do believe those kids are being exploited, and I wish that people would remember that they won't be children forever. Someday they will be adults who have to live with everything that's happening right now.


Castor Rouge said...

Good catch, and here I've been fixated on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. So much history sails by us sometimes.

Personally I'm gearing up for the 200th of 1812. I wonder if we'll have another faux battle of Georgian Bay at Disco?

Trevor Cunnington said...

Great article!