The record for most babies born to one woman is 69. She was the first wife of Feodor Vassilyev, a peasant from Shuya, Russia who lived from 1707-1782. We can only speculate how many fire safety ordinances he violated by housing all his progeny in his little peasant sized hovel. Presumably, at some point they also had to choose to feed on the weak ones in order to provide food for the strong.
His first wife – whose name is lost to history – holds the widely cited world record for bearing the most children. According to a local monastery’s report to the government in Moscow, between 1725 and 1765 Mrs Vassilyev popped out 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets, over 27 separate labours. The grand total: 69 children.
How did she manage this feat given most women only have about 30-ish years of baby making ability? She gave birth to sixteen pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets; so basically a veritable baby making factory who scoffs at “one at a timing” it. Amazingly, 67 of her children survived infancy, which was a remarkable rate for the day.
The first published account about Feodor Vassilyev’s children appeared in a 1783 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine (Vol. 53 p. 753, London, 1783) and states that the information “however astonishing, may be depended upon, as it came directly from an English merchant in St Petersburg to his relatives in England, who added that the peasant was to be introduced to the Empress”. The same numbers were given in an 1834 book of Bashutskiy, Saint Petersburg Panorama.
A woman could, in theory, become the mother to more children than we ever thought possible
For starters, could she have been fertile enough over such a long time period? Women typically go through menarche at around age 15, when their ovaries begin releasing usually a single egg every 28 days. This ovulation continues until the egg supply, insofar as we know, is exhausted at menopause, the typical onset of which is 51 years of age.
Well before menopause, though, women’s fertility plummets. “The percentage chance of having a baby per cycle when a woman is 45 [years old] is about 1% per month,” says Valerie Baker, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Stanford School of Medicine.
As women get older, egg quantity and quality diminish. Halfway through fetal development, unborn females have as many as seven million immature egg cells, but they are born with closer to only one million eggs. Only a few hundred thousand eggs then persist into adulthood. And of these legions, technically known as follicles, something like 400 ever mature and eventually ovulate, assuming a 30-year span of potential childbearing.
The last of these eggs, ovulated late in a woman’s fertility window, have far higher chances of accruing damage and mutations, such as chromosomal abnormalities. Many pregnancies with these atypical eggs self-terminate.
“Most women don’t get pregnant past 44, 42 [years of age],” says Segars. “But you’ll occasionally hear of people pregnant in their late 40s.”
What’s more, the ability to become pregnant goes down with each pregnancy, as successive labours take their toll out on a woman’s reproductive anatomy. And if Mrs Vassilyev were breastfeeding, as might be expected for a peasant who could not afford to keep wet nurses about, her body would not ovulate. This built-in, biological method of birth control would lengthen the odds even further for her getting pregnant as often as she apparently must have for 69 crumbsnatchers.
Feodor and his wife, therefore, would have had to be extremely lucky (or, arguably, unlucky) to have kept hitting the mark into her 50s.