Today, moms-to-be usually see their progeny on a sonogram about halfway through a pregnancy, months before they give birth. Back in 1963, however, such sophisticated imaging technology wasn’t yet available. So when Mary Ann Fischer, a 30-year-old women in Aberdeen, S.D., got exceptionally big seven months into her pregnancy — “I was gaining four or five pounds a day,” she later recalled — her obstetrician, Dr. James Berbos, did an X-ray of her body. When he saw the film, he discovered the reason: Fischer had multiple fetuses in her uterus. Five of them, in fact.
Oddly, according to a 1963 Associated Press account, Dr. Berbos didn’t tell Fischer or her husband, Andrew, a grocery warehouse clerk, right away. It wasn’t until a few days later, after the physician had Fischer check into the hospital in expectation that she would give birth prematurely, that he broke the news to her. Fischer’s reaction was to break into tears and cry all through the night. “I was shook,” she told the AP. After all, she already had five children at home to take care of. But she didn’t get much time to contemplate her situation. At around 3 a.m. the following morning, Sept. 14, 1963, she gave birth to four girls and a boy — Mary Ann, Mary Magdalene, Mary Catherine, Mary Margaret and James Andrew.
At the time, Fischer, who died on Dec. 9 at age 79 in Aberdeen, made headlines across the nation, as only the fourth recorded birth of quintuplets in U.S. history. (The AP noted that the chances of giving birth to five infants were 42 million to one.) A crowd of 25,000 people in her hometown turned out for a lavish homecoming parade in their honor, which included floats, marching bands and a 300-pound birthday cake. (The event was captured by documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock in his 1964 short film, Happy Mother’s Day.) The Pope sent them five gold medals, and well-wishers showered them $35,000 in gifts. The local chamber of commerce, perhaps sensing that the family might become a tourist attraction, offered to build them a new home. Soon after, merchandisers began marketing quintuplet postcards, memorial coins and bumper stickers. A local bartender even cooked up a drink, the Quintini. A publishing firm, a calendar manufacturer and Borden, the dairy firm, purchased exclusive rights to use the children’s photos.
Nevertheless, the Fischer quintuplets and their mother never became celebrities like the Dionne quintuples, in part because the family decided that they preferred their privacy. Six years after the momentous birth, according to this AP account, the promotional contracts had expired, and the proceeds apparently had helped to pay for an 800-acre dairy farm and a 10-bedroom home where the family lived in seclusion, with a “no trespassing” sign hanging on the fence to keep sightseers and reporters away. In the 1980s, Fischer and her husband divorced, according to news reports.
In a rare 2003 interview with the Aberdeen American News on the 40th anniversary of the quintuplets’ birth, Fischer explained why she had chosen to raise her children — all of whom are still living, many in the Aberdeen area — outside the glare of publicity. “I would give an interview and they would change what I said,” she recalled. “It got to be that whenever someone would want to talk to me, I just felt like I couldn’t trust anybody.” She became so depressed by the nonstop clamor that she became suicidal and had to be hospitalized, she revealed. And despite the rumors, the family never became wealthy. At age 70, Fischer still worked as a cook for a local program that provided meals to seniors.
Even so, Fischer didn’t seem to have any regrets about her extra-large family. “The joy of my children was the best part,” she told the newspaper. “We had lots of good times. Why, we had enough family to have our own ball games out in the yard.” She added: “I think I did a pretty good job as a mother, and I am proud of every one of them.”