People all across Britain had their fingers firmly crossed that five baby girls born to an Essex mother would make it safely through their critical first few days of life.
The quintuplets were born to Irene and John Hanson, of Rayleigh, in Essex, on Thursday November 13th, 1969. They were the first live quintuplets to be born in the UK in the 20th century, but they had to be delivered nine weeks early by caesarean section and it was touch and go whether they would all survive.
Consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist George Wynn-Williams told reporters: “I would not say their chances were good yet, but they are certainly better than we might have expected.”
He led the team of 26 nurses and doctors who delivered the babies at Queen Charlotte’s maternity hospital, in London. They ranged in weight from 3lb 7oz to just 2lb 6.5oz and were named Joanne Lesley, Nicola Jane, Julie Anne, Sarah Louise and Jacqueline Mary.
One of the girls, Nicola Jane, initially had some difficulty breathing, but had improved slightly. They were all being cared for in separate incubators in the hospital’s special baby care nursery, where they were being fed hourly with breast milk through tubes into their stomachs, as they were too premature to suckle like a full-term baby.
Their 33-year-old mother, Irene, was resting after the birth and said to be “in excellent condition”. Although she hadn’t yet seen her five daughters, she was said to be “as happy as Larry” to hear they had all survived the birth. Their 35-year-old father, John, had been able to see the girls through a glass partition and was also delighted, if a little apprehensive. The quintuplets were their first children.
Mrs Hanson had been prescribed a fertility drug to help her become pregnant and it was suspected early in the pregnancy that she was going to have more than one baby, and possibly triplets. A newly developed British invention – and ultrasonic detector – was later used to diagnose there would be at least five babies and to predict their birth weight. Ultrasound scans are now a routine part of pregnancy monitoring throughout the developed world.
Press interest in the welfare and development of the Hanson quintuplets continued for the next few weeks, and thankfully they did all survive and soon began to gain weight. They were believed to be only the second set of all-girl quintuplets to survive, the first ones being the Dionne sisters, born in Ontario, Canada, in 1934.
Their birth and survival had been so remarkable at that time that they were treated poorly, housed in a special section of the hospital where they could be seen through a public viewing window. They quickly became a major tourist attraction and had to be taken from their parents after they signed a lucrative deal to have them displayed at fairs and other exhibitions!
Thankfully there were no such shenanigans with the Hanson quintuplets, who were allowed home with their parents to begin a normal (or as normal as it could be) family life once they had reached a healthy weight and were eating well. Mrs Hanson’s former boss at the local firm where she worked as a telephonist confidently told reporters: “Irene is so calm and efficient I am sure she will be able to tackle the mammoth job of looking after five babies with ease.”
The Hansons were eclipsed 14 years later when Liverpool couple Janet and Graham Walton gave birth to the world’s first all-female surviving sextuplets. There are now more than 10,000 multiple births in the UK every year. The use of fertility drugs for couples who struggle to conceive has fuelled a big increase in multiple births, while medical advances also means survival rates have improved.