"Total Fertility Rate" or TFR is a statistic that measures the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime if she were to survive from birth until the end of her reproductive life. Throughout the years that TFRs have been computed, the data appear to show that the average number of children women have been bearing since 1950 has been steadily decreasing. In the United States, for example, the TFR from 1950 to 1995 was pegged at 4.95 children per mother. This statistic has almost consistently declined throughout the years, and in the period 2010-2015, the United States TFR is foreseen to be at around 2.36 -- in sixty years, a marked decline of two children per mother.
However, throughout history, there are a number of women who have found themselves bearing a number of children significantly above the statistical average. In fact, advances in assisted reproductive and birth control technology in recent years have resulted in higher incidences of multiple births. Surprisingly though, the ten women who were recorded to have produced the highest number of children in history, save one, did so no later than the 1800s. What is even more mystifying is that those were times when women were without the advances in medicine that today's mothers are able to take advantage of in caring for themselves before and after delivering their babies.
Unfortunately, claims of prolific child-bearing made before the advent of the information age are characterized by scarce documentation. As a result, the stories of mothers who were said to have given birth to an incredible number of children are quite difficult to verify, the only pieces of evidence remaining to this day being isolated journal entries and old gravestones. Nevertheless, the little that is known today about these prolific mothers is still absolutely fascinating.
Here are ten mothers whom history has recorded to have given birth to the highest number of children:
10 Mary Jonas (33 Children)
In the 1800s, there lived in Foregate Street, England, a furniture dealer by the name of Mary Jonas. When she died in 1899 at the age of 85, she was laid to rest with her husband, John Jonas. Their gravestone in the Overleigh Cemetery in Chester, England contains an interesting claim. The engraving reads,
John Jonas, who died 24th February 1992, aged 78 years, also Mary Jonas, the beloved wife of the above, and mother of 33 children, who died December 4th, 1899, aged 85 years
Of Mary and John's 33 children, 30 were twins (15 pairs), and each of these twins were comprised of a boy and a girl. Furthermore, all of Mary and John's children were born alive and were christened, but most passed away before they reached adulthood. However, ten of the children were still alive upon their father's death in 1892. Another interesting fact about the family is that a popular magazine of their time, Tit-Bits, ran a promotion that promised to offer a free copy for life to the woman "judged to have contributed most to the population of the Empire." Mrs. Jonas won the contest, hands down.
9 Mrs. Harrison (35 Children)
In 1836, the book Mockett's Journal: A Collection of Interesting Matters Relating to Remarkable Personages, Ancient Buildings, Manners and Customs was published. That book contains the following entry:
1736: Mrs. Harrison, wife of Mr. Harrison, an undertaker, residing in Vere Street, was brought to bed of her 35th child by one husband.
Not much else is known about the couple.
8 Elizabeth Greenhill (39 Children)
Most mothers who have a large number of children do so by having several multiple births. However, Elizabeth Greenhill from Abbot's Langley in Hertfordshire, managed to give birth to 39 children despite having only one multiple birth. This piece of history was recorded in Thomas Greenhill's The Art of Embalming. The inscription in the book reads,
She had 39 children by one husband. They were all born alive, and baptised and all single births save one. The last child, who was born after his father's death, was a surgeon in King-street, Bloomsbury, and wrote the above book, which he was desirous to bring into fashion. She was heard to say by a credible witness, with whom I [the person whose signature attests it] was well acquainted, that she believed, if her husband had lived, she might have had two or three more children. [signed] Rich. Ashby, a clergyman.
Thomas Greenhill, the author of the book and the last child of Elizabeth, was born after the death of his father, William Greenhill, in the late 1660s.
7 Alice Hookes (41 Children)
Alice Hookes of Gwynedd, North Wales enters this list by virtue of a gravestone found in Conway Church cemetery. The inscription on the memorial states that Nicholas Hookes, who died in 1637, was the 41st child of his mother, Alice. Unfortunately, no other details of Alice's previous births exist.
6 Elizabeth Mott (42 Children)
The 1988 edition of the Guinness Book of Records lists the British record holder for the highest number of children to be a certain Elizabeth Mott. Elizabeth and John Mott of Monks Kirby in north-eastern Warwickshire were married in 1676, and they were reported to have produced 42 live-born children. Elizabeth passed away in 1720.
5 Maddalena Granata (52 Children)
In Nocera, Italy, a woman by the name of Maddalena Granata was reported to have given birth to a total of 52 children. The occurrence was recorded by a Xaples correspondent to a Paris Journal, where the following was written:
About 2 or 3 stations beyond Pompeii, in the City of Nocera, lives Maddalena Granata, aged forty-seven, who was married at twenty-eight, and has given birth to 52 living and dead children, 49 being males. Dr. de Sanctis, of Nocera, states that she has had triplets 15 times.
4 Barbara Stratzmann (53 Children)
Living from around 1448 to 1503 during the time of the Holy Roman Empire, Barbara Stratzmann of Boennigheim (today known as Germany) was reported to have borne 53 children, although none of them survived infancy. More specifically, Barbara and her husband Adam Stratzmann were said to have had one set of septuplets, one set of sextuplets, four sets of triplets, five sets of twins, and eighteen single births. Of these children, nineteen were supposedly stillborn, and by 1498, the eldest surviving child was eight years old.
The unusually large number of births was recorded in a painting by Protestant artist Cyriakuskirche from Boennigheim. In the work of art, Cyriakuskirche portrayed Barbara and Adam with their 53 children in a stable at Bethlehem. However, in 1990, the chief physician of the Heilbronn Municipal Women's Clinic contradicted the story by pointing out that the multiple births Barbara was said to have had were statistically improbable and that a woman in that period would have been unlikely to survive the multiple pregnancies due to the state of medicine at that time.
3 Leontina Albina (55 Children)
The 1988 version of The Guinness Book of Records reports that the world's most prolific mother at that time was San Antonio, Chile's Leontina (née Espinosa) Albina, wife of Gerardo Secunda Albina. Leontina and Gerardo, born in 1925 and 1921, respectively, were married in Argentina in 1943. According to Gerardo, before coming to Chile, his wife had borne five sets of triplets (who all happened to be boys). Then, in Chile, the couple had more children until 1981, when a 55-year-old Leontina was recorded to have given birth to her 55th child. There were actually unverified reports that the couple had nine more children after that, which would have upped their total to 64 children. In fact, if Leontina's delivery in 1986 had been reliably verified, it would have made her the record-holder as the world's oldest new mother at 60 years old. Unfortunately for the couple, eleven of their children were lost in an earthquake, and by 1988, only 40 of their children (24 boys and 16 girls) were alive.
2 The Wife of Yakov Kirillov (57 Children)
In 1775, a 60-year-old Yakov Kirillov from the village of Vvedensky in Russia was presented to the Queen's Court in recognition of his fatherhood achievements. With the peasant farmer were some of the 15 children borne to his second wife and all 57 of the children he had had with his first wife. The first wife, whose name was not recorded, had given birth to her 57 children in a total of 21 births: four sets of quadruplets, seven sets of triplets, and ten sets of twins. Unfortunately, the certainty that Kirillov's wife had truly borne 57 children cannot be unquestionably verified, thus giving rise to doubts on the veracity of the claim.
1 The First Wife of Feodor Vassilyev (69 Children)
Feodor Vassilyev, who lived from 1707 to 1782, was a peasant from Shuya, Russia. The name of his first wife has not been recorded, but according to the records of the Monastery of Nikolsk, this woman gave birth to four sets of quadruplets, seven sets of triplets, and sixteen sets of twins in her 27 confinements at the monastery. That makes a total of 69 births by one woman, and according to records, only two of the children failed to survive their infancy. Adding to the extraordinary nature of this story, Vassilyev married again and with his new wife, had two sets of triplets and six sets of twins for a total of 18 more children in 8 births. That gave the the Russian 87 children all in all. Doubts have been raised on the veracity of this claim; nevertheless, Guinness World Records lists Vassilyev's wife, with her 69 children, to be the official record holder as the most prolific mother of all time.