The Dionne Quints: Their survival odds were one in 57 million

The word “millions” pops up frequently with any mention of the Dionne Quintuplets who riveted the attention of millions of people the world over once it became evident they would survive the astonishing circumstances of their birth, May 24, 1934. Many millions of words written and spoken centered on these five identical babies. Millions of goods appeared with their likeness advertising an incredible variety of materials.

During the worst years of the Great Depression, three million people reportedly visited their hospital compound to watch the youngsters “on view” three times a day. It’s estimated the Ontario government reaped $500 million over the nearly 20 years before the girls moved to Quebec. A huge array of product endorsements accounted for more millions distributed among an enormous horde of beneficiaries. These ranged from their father Oliva and mother Elzire; their doctor, Allan Roy Dafoe; involved scientists, other professionals and politicians; and the giant corporations and media outlets that cashed in on the public’s insatiable interest. So many profited, yet when first on their own these incredibly sheltered young women did not know how to differentiate between a nickel and a dime.

Only twice before they were born – in 1786 and 1849 – have records noted birth of identical quintuplets and only four times since – 1936, 1959, 2004 and 2007. Even today the Dionne Quintuplets, born two months prematurely, continue to represent the only instance in which all five such infants survived to adulthood. Small wonder the world called them “miracle babies.” Placed on an old potato scale, all together they weighed only 13 1/2 pounds. A butcher’s basket containing all five and set on the oven door of the humble home’s wood burning stove served as their first incubator.

During the Depression hype, hoopla, glamor and gladness surrounded the girls’ early years, helping folks forget their miseries, and a bit more bearable. The public doted on these adorable tots portrayed as little pampered princesses living in their happy Quintland world. But that world would never be tolerated in this day and age. It proved to be isolated, sterile, and artificially choreographed. Then in 1943 at age 9, the story of the Quints became a tragic melodrama. Moved to their parents’ new home, they found themselves alienated from their confused and jealous siblings. Their isolation continued as Oliva programmed and orchestrated their every move; he prevented any outside social interaction, Ignorance and superstition contributed to make them like indentured servants.

Only two sisters now remain alive. Annette and Cecile quietly celebrated their 74th birthday. Once they became adults, all five feared and shunned public recognition that made them feel like objects rather than real people. Countless entries on the Internet describe the early days but few recent facts are available.

Three books are of interest to those wanting to reminisce or learn historic data and perspective. In 1977 the late, famous Canadian journalist, Pierre Berton, offered the most objective portrait of all that transpired in The Dionne Years. He placed what happened in the framework of then cultural, geographical and economical times. Earlier, in 1965 James Brough published We Were Five: From Birth Through Girlhood to Womanhood written with the four who survived Emilie’s tragic death. Then in 1995 Jean-Yves Soucy with Annette, Cecile and Yvonne told a bitter story in their book, Family Secrets. Included pathos describes how the five didn’t even know how to shop for stockings when they first emerged to seek independence.

Corporate New York speech writer Don Brockway, halfway down the Internet blog he offered April 13, 2008, at had lot to say about the quintuplets, their parents and key players surrounding their childhood. His tone may be termed cynical. He calls the compound at Corbeil in Northern Ontario “the world’s first theme park” and describes the tots as “the only two-year-olds who needed a day planner” for recording their regimented germ-free life. He notes, “What’s missing is a hero.” Instead, he names many who were guilty of greediness or naiveté.

But a much happier Web site, the offers on its left side index the Dionne Museum and the Dionne Quints Gift Shop located at 1375 Seymour St., North Bay, Ontario P1B 8JB. Housed in the transported but original Dionne homestead, the museum contains many artifacts. Amy Tomms is the curator who says every year between May and October about 5,000 visitors come from all over Canada and the U.S. to learn about the quints and purchase souvenirs. These include 50-cent postcards such as one showing the bed in which the babies were born, a $49.95 limited edition plate depicting the homestead, magnets for $2.99, dishwasher safe mugs at $8.99 or T-shirts priced at $19.95. A full color 48-inch by 65-inch jacquard throw, woven from 100 percent cotton, features the little girls’ pictures as an exclusive $109.95 item. The Museum’s phone number is (888) 249-8998.

Courteous Amy Tomms is happy to provide facts about the fabled past. But other than saying Annette and Cecile now live in St. Bruno, a suburb of Montreal, she’s reluctant to offer additional current information. It’s easy to agree with her when she points out, “Surely these two sisters are now entitled to stay under the radar.”

Older people, especially women born in decades just before or after the Quints, still cherish memorabilia collected from the Dionne’s toddler time; but those in their younger folks may need an introduction

Annette: Married Germain Allard, 1957 divorced, 4 children

Cecile: Married Philppe Langlois, 1958; divorced

Emilie: Died in August 1954 of accidental suffocation during an epileptic seizure at her convent

Marie: Married Florian Houle, 1955; died 1970 of an apparent brain blood clot

Yvonne: Died in June 2001 of cancer