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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2001

Dionne museum sparks memories

Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emilie, and Marie. Pretty names. Pretty babies, sisters born within minutes of one another on May 28, 1934. The Dionne quintuplets, the darlings of the '30s who pulled heartstrings around the world, invariably come to mind each time a multiple birth hits the headlines.

Most recently it was the septuplets born this month in Washington.

Granted, each multiple birth deserves a place in the news, but in 1934 the Canadian quints were more than newsworthy. They were a phenomenon and their story is always delightful to review, even though it includes sad chapters and the fact that 67 years later, only two of the five are living.

Years ago, in the company of a mother and two maiden aunts who were smitten with the story of the quintuplets which unfolded hundreds of miles away from our southern Michigan home, I was lucky to be one of the thousands of people who traveled to see the five little girls on public display in the yard of the Davoe Hospital.

The memory of them being brought into the fenced yard to walk, swing, and run as we peered through the fence and oohed and aahed left an indelible print in my mind. I remember clearly that they were all dressed in pink fluffy dresses and that their hair bounced when they ran. I don't remember that they talked or giggled, only that they were adorable and that I wanted to push through the heavy steel fence and hug them one by one, though I, too, was a child.

While as a child I was excited about the Dionnes as cute little girls dressed as dolls, all alike, a more recent visit to the Dionne Quints Museum at North Bay, Ont., left an entirely different impression.

The museum that houses a collection of the quintuplets' memorabilia is in the original Dionne house where they were born. The simplicity sums up the economic conditions of the family, and the environment that surrounded the births.

Oliva and Elzire Dionne were raising four children before five were added to the family. In addition to the family dining room table and the bed where the quints were born, artifacts include Cecile's incubator, the eye droppers they were fed with, and several sets of clothing. Comparing the quints' birth and more recent multiple births is interesting. First of all, Oliva did not take fertility drugs. She did not know she was carrying more than one baby, and she gave birth, with the assistance of two midwives, in the bed that is a part of the exhibit.

The birth is reported in a delightful book written by the midwives on the case, DonaldaLegros and Mrs. Ben Labelle, who wrote in their own words the incredible experience of delivering five babies with a combined weight of 13 pounds, 5 ounces.

The book, rightfully entitled Administering Angels, records the care given by the two women before Dr. Alan Ray Dafoe arrived on the scene. It also tells that the women had more faith in keeping the five alive than did he.

When Mrs. Legros asked the doctor if she should continue to bathe the babies in warm olive oil, he told her to do what she pleased because they would die anyway.

The midwives breathed into each baby's mouth to start the breathing and gave each conditional baptism. One by one they were wrapped in warm blankets and placed in a deep butcher basket for warmth. Because there was only one hot water bottle in the Dionne household, irons were heated and placed in the basket by their feet. The babies' lips were moistened with warm sweetened water and they were turned from side to side often, “to keep their lungs in motion,” Mrs. Labelle explains in the book.

New babies were not only their business - they were paid $1 to $3 for each delivery - but were part of their personal lives. Mrs. Legros had 9 children and Mrs. Labelle had 18.

A quint industry soon sprung up, giving employment to thousands of people, and in the height of the Great Depression, the five baby girls brought joy to the world, whether it was face-to-face through the fence, or through their picture in newspapers and on endorsed products.

The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. For information, call the North Bay Chamber of Commerce, 705-472-8480.

Mary Alice Powell is a former Blade food editor. E-mail her at mpowell@theblade.com.



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