SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – As the mother of five children in a small South Dakota town, the limelight was the furthest thing from Mary Ann Darling Fischer’s mind. All that changed Sept. 14, 1963, when Fischer gave birth to the first known surviving quintuplets in the United States.
Thrust into the spotlight after giving birth to the four girls and one boy, Fischer and her then-husband retreated into the most quintessential South Dakota activities: They took part in a bowling league, hunted pheasants and attended regular Sunday church services.
“I would rather go into the delivery room than come down here,” Fischer said as she faced 30 reporters at her first news conference following the birth of the babies.
Mary Ann Darling Fischer passed away Sunday at age 79. Schriver’s Memorial Mortuary and Crematory says she died at Avera St. Luke’s Hospital in Aberdeen.
The Fischers didn’t know they were expecting quintuplets until a few days before the babies were born two months premature. An X-ray showed the reason why Mary Ann had grown so large during the pregnancy. When Dr. James Berbos informed the couple of the news, Andrew Fischer said he “shook,” while Mary Ann, 30 at the time, started crying when the doctor told them that instead of one baby, they were having five.
A few days later, Sept. 14, 1963, the couple welcomed Mary Ann, Mary Catherine, Mary Margaret, Mary Magdalene and James Andrew between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. The babies were not weighed immediately, but the doctor estimated each of the girls weighed between 2½ and 3 pounds while James Andrew weighed about 4 pounds.
Mary Ann was named for her mother; Mary Catherine and Mary Margaret were named for two hospital workers; and Mary Magdalene was named for her paternal grandmother.
Immediately following their birth, each baby was placed into an isolation chamber to control the oxygen, temperature and humidity around them. Four of the five babies were breech deliveries, while one arrived in the usual headfirst position. The couple did not know of any other multiple births in their family.
Andrew Fischer, a stock clerk who earned less than $100 a week before the quintuplets were born, said after the births he wasn’t particularly worried about the size of his family doubling. The couple later had another child.
“I don’t know how, but I’m sure my wife and I will be able to take care of them, the same as the five others,” he said. The couple’s older children ranged in age from 3 to 7 years old when the babies were born.
Gifts poured in for the quintuplets and their parents, including diaper service, baby clothes, college scholarships and insurance policies for a new 17-room mansion a mile outside of Aberdeen, a town of about 25,000 people in northeast South Dakota.
The couple, who later divorced, signed a five-year exclusive contract with a publishing house for coverage of the family in December 1963, with the bulk of that money going into a trust fund for the couple’s nine girls and two boys.
By the time the quintuplets turned 5, the Fischers had turned their back on the publicity for a more normal life for the children that included doing household chores, joining the scouts and piano and dance lessons.
When the quintuplets turned 18, attorneys for the family were still receiving regular inquiries to interview the five each month. They all were turned down.
It was through these efforts to keep the quintuplets guarded – particularly by Mary Ann – that friends and neighbors said they emerged unscathed and well adjusted.
Jim Carrier, a former newsman for the Associated Press and The Denver Post who spent years corresponding with Mary Ann on a book project about the family that never materialized, recalled it very differently.
“The Fischer story is really an untold story of what can be a dark side of these famous family stories,” he told the AP Tuesday.
The nation viewed the Fischers as the all-American family living a fairytale life, but when the contracts expired and the corporate gifts disappeared, the Fischers were still left to raise 11 children.
“They were pestered by people who wanted something, and I would say, ultimately, Mary Ann ... was largely embittered by the experience,” he said.
The AP was unable to reach any of the quintuplets or other family members for comment Tuesday. Seven of Fischer’s children didn’t immediately respond to phone messages, a call to one number rang unanswered and three siblings didn’t have listed numbers. Andrew Fischer also did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Mary Ann Darling Fischer was born June 8, 1933, at her grandparent’s farm near Hecla, S.D. She later took a job at a vacuum and oil company and married Andrew Fischer in 1955, according to her obituary.
Before the Fischer quintuplets, only two sets of quints born in the Western Hemisphere had survived infancy. They were the Dionnes of Canada in 1934 and the Dilgenti children in Argentina in 1943.