Decades before “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and “19 Kids and Counting,” there was Mary Ann Fischer in Aberdeen, S.D.
On Sept. 14, 1963, she gave birth to four girls and one boy: Mary Ann, Mary Catherine, Mary Margaret, Mary Magdalene and James Andrew. The babies became the first quintuplets in the United States known to have lived past infancy. Their birth was heralded in newspapers across the country, and Mrs. Fischer — who died Dec. 9 at 79 — briefly became the most famous mother in America.
A mortuary representative confirmed her death but said she did not know the cause.
Before the Fischers, only two sets of quints in the Western Hemisphere were known to have survived: one set in Canada and another in Argentina. At the time, before the growth of fertility treatments, quintuplets were reported to occur once in 54 million births.
When the Fischers arrived — all of them reasonably healthy, despite being born two months early — an all-out bonanza ensued. Greetings poured into Aberdeen from leaders including President John F. Kennedy and Pope Paul VI.
The quints joined Mrs. Fischer’s five older children. A year later, she and her husband announced the birth of another daughter, who filled out the family’s ranks to 11 children.
In the early 1960s, when many headlines carried news of domestic unrest, the Fischer family brought a measure of delight to American newspapers. No development in the quints’ young lives was too small to mark.
When the babies moved from incubators to bassinets, the press took note. A nurse who assisted with their delivery appeared on the television shows “What’s My Line?” and NBC’s “Today” show.
The town of Aberdeen marked the babies’ one-month birthday with a two-hour parade led by the proud parents. More than 50,000 people attended, according to a report by United Press International.
The attention was not entirely welcomed by Mrs. Fischer, who learned only days before the birth that she was carrying five babies.“I thought I was going to die,” she once told the Aberdeen American News. “I was gaining 4 to 5 pounds a day.”
When she met the horde of reporters at a hospital news conference, she was so dazed that she said she would “rather go into the delivery room again” than confront the hubbub. One journalist reportedly tried to sneak into Mrs. Fischer’s room dressed as a nun.
The media attention did bring about some good, however. When Mrs. Fischer left the hospital, she wept when she conveyed her gratitude for the assistance that had flowed to her family in its time of financial need. Mrs. Fischer’s husband, Andrew, was described in news accounts as a $76-a-week grocery shipping clerk.
The family received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, including baby food, clothes, diapers and the promise of free haircuts. The town carried off a modern-day barn raising, building a larger house for the expanding family.
Later in life, Mrs. Fischer expressed some bitterness about exaggerated accounts of the publishing and advertising contracts accorded the quints. Much of that money went toward trust funds for their support.
“If lots of money were involved,” she told the Aberdeen paper in 2003, “would I still be working my fool head off at age 70?”
Mary Ann Darling Brady was born June 8, 1933, on her grandparents’ farm near Hecla, S.D. She attended country schools and worked for a vacuum and oil company as a young woman, according to information on the mortuary’s Web site.
She and her husband were married in 1955 and were reported to have divorced in the 1980s. While raising her children, she sold cakes from home, worked for the local YWCA day-care center and cooked meals for seniors.
Besides her 11 children, survivors include a brother, a sister, nine grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
“They’re the most important thing to me,” Mrs. Fischer once said of her children. “I am not saying we were always perfect, but I think I did a pretty good job as a mother, and I am proud of every one of them.”