The Birth of the Dionne Quintuplets
On 28th May 1934, Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie Dionne were born to a Franco-Ontarian family in Corbeil, Ontario. The birth and survival of these five identical sisters became an international sensation that brought intense attention to the “Quints” and their small Ontario town. The infants’ delivery was handled by experienced local midwives Douilda (Donalda) Legros and Mary-Jeanne Lebel, and local physician Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe.
Born in the village of Corbeil in Northern Ontario to Elzire and Oliva Dionne, the quintuplets arrived almost two months early at about 31 weeks. Together, they weighed just 13 pounds, 6 ounces. The largest baby weighed 2-and-a-half pounds, and the smallest weighed 1 pound, 8-and-a-half ounces. None of the infants measured longer than 9 inches. The odds of naturally occurring quintuplets are estimated to be about one in 55,000,000. However, the odds of identical quintuplets are considered incalculable because of the random nature of twinning. It appears that the Dionnes are the only identical quintuplets ever recorded, and the first ever quintuplets known to have survived infancy.
Experienced local midwives, Douilda Legros and Mary-Jeanne Lebel, worked together to deliver the first two babies. Local country physician Dr. Allan Roy Dafoe arrived in time to assist with the third birth, and tended to the fourth and fifth births. The quintuplets’ birth and after care took place under difficult circumstances, and without access to any medical equipment or facilities. The babies were not expected to live, and their survival astounded the medical world. Their early care was based on common sense and making do with what was available. Before supplies of breast milk could be organized, Dafoe ordered that the babies be fed a mix of cow’s milk, sterilized water, and corn syrup. When they had difficulty breathing, the infants were given a water and rum solution that revitalised them. The quintuplets were kept warm by oven heat, hot water bottles, or heated bricks until incubators were obtained. Legros, Lebel, and Dafoe attained considerable fame for their roles in helping to bring the Dionnes’ safely into the world.
The birth of the Dionnes in the midst of the Great Depression captured the world’s attention, and the sisters became a sensation. Soon after their birth, citing concerns for their well-being, the Ontario government placed the quintuplets under the control of a board of guardians that included Dafoe. Separated from their family, the girls spent their first nine years at “Quintland,” a specially-built facility where they were put on daily public display. Many parties subsequently exploited the sisters and capitalized on their celebrity. The quintuplets became a major attraction, exhibited to millions of tourists who travelled from around the globe to see them and witness firsthand the survival of the world’s best-known babies. They returned to their family in 1943. The Dionne family home was later moved to North Bay in order to become a museum dedicated to telling the story of the quintuplets.
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada
Created in 1919, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, in close collaboration with Parks Canada, advises the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change regarding the national historic significance of places, people, and events that have marked Canada’s history. The placement of a commemorative plaque represents an official recognition of historic value. It is one means of informing the public about the richness of our cultural heritage, which must be preserved for present and future generations.
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