A Brief History
On May 28, 1934, outside the village of Corbeil, Ontario, the first human quintuplets known to have survived past infancy were born. The Dionne Quints, as they were called, became an international sensation.
In today’s world of fertility drugs and treatments that doctors and clinics specifically created to enhance fertility, we are no longer impressed with multiple births. (Okay, we were impressed by “Octomom,” but in more of a horrified way.) Triplets, quadruplets and quintuplets induced by fertility treatments and by the artificial implanting of fertilized human egg cells has made the multiple birth phenomena a commonplace thing.
Back in 1934, quintuplets were a rare thing and a big deal. Prior to the Dionne babies, all known quintuplets had died as babies. The 2 month premature Dionne Quints were taken from their family at the age of 4 months and turned over to the government as wards of the King. They would remain wards of the King for the next 9 years, during which time they were displayed as a popular tourist attraction to the profit of the government.
The Quints, all girls, were born into a farming family that already had 5 previous children (plus a sixth that died in infancy). Their mother, Elzire Dionne, also had 3 more children after the Quints. It was later proven with DNA testing that all 5 girls were identical, the products of a single egg cell. It is likely there had actually been a 6th embryo that was miscarried during the pregnancy.
The poverty stricken parents of the girls were persuaded to sign a contract with a Chicago exhibition, turning the girls over to them for display, but the government intervened and took custody of the Quits based on the “inability” of the Dionnes to support them. Considering the exploitation of the Quints by the Ontario government, creating “Quintland” which drew more visitors than any other Ontario tourist attraction (yes, even more than Niagara Falls), it does not seem the government was any better than the parents.
The girls were subjected to a rigid schedule, with a routine that was strictly adhered to. They were also subjected to various experiments and daily inspections by a doctor. Hollywood movie stars and other celebrities came to Ontario to see the Dionne Quints, and the girls were used in advertising campaigns for commercial products. A movie was made in 1936 (The Country Doctor) and a sequel in 1938 (Five of a Kind) in which the girls appeared as themselves. Numerous newsreel appearances and a 1939 documentary (Oscar nominated) were made, and a 1998 documentary, Full Circle: The Untold Story of the Dionne Quintuplets, was produced by CBS with the 3 surviving Quints.
At age 9, the Quints returned to their family which by now had accumulated wealth due to exploitation of the girls. The girls continued to tour and make appearances, but at age 18 left the family and hardly ever spoke to their parents again. Three of the girls married and had children, while the other two never married, one of which died at age 20 (during an epileptic seizure) and another at age 35 (due to a blood clot). The third Quint to pass away died in 2001 of cancer, and the other 2 survive to this day (as of May 16, 2020).
In 1998, the girls won a settlement from the government of Ontario for an undisclosed amount, and in 1995 had reported that their father had sexually abused them as teenagers. The girls also expressed bitterness over their parents using the money earned by the girls that was supposed to be their personal accounts to buy the mansion the family lived in. The surviving 3 Quints also reported that their parents had forced them to do most of the housework, constantly abused them verbally, and disciplined them more strictly than the other children.
A sibling of the Quints had the original family homestead moved to North Bay, Ontario where it has been made into a museum about the Quints. Numerous allusions to the Dionne Quints have been made in movies and songs, even in jokes about them on the MASH television show. Numerous books about the Quints have been published, and a 1994 television mini-series, Million Dollar Babies, was produced in Canada.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you consider what happened to the quintuplets to have been exploitation? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Akins, Karla. The Dionne Quintuplets (O Canada: Her Story Book 6). Bramley Books, 2011.
Soucy, Jean-Yves. Family secrets: the dionne quintuplets’ autobiography. Berkley, 1997.
- 1. it was subject to Crown copyright and was first published more than 50 years ago, or
it was not subject to Crown copyright, and
- 2. it is a photograph that was created prior to January 1, 1949, or
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