The theoretical limit of how many babies a male human could father seems to be limitless. Genghis Khan is a popular historical example.
He had so many children that modern research tells us his ancestors today number roughly 16 million; that’s close to the current population of the Netherlands in Europe or Senegal in Africa.
But what are the limits for women? How many children can a woman possibly bear within her lifetime? Bringing even one child into this world is, incomparably, a physically exhausting process.
Guinness World Records tells us the crown for giving birth to the most children goes to an 18th century Russian woman. Her name is uncertain, but she was the wife of a peasant farmer called Feodor Vassilyev. Some sources mention her name could have been Valentina.
So, Mrs. Valentina Vassilyev went into labor 27 separate times, if the seemingly improbable records of the time are accurate.
She delivered 16 sets of twins, seven triplets and four squads of quadruplets. That totals to 69 bouncing babies, of whom 67 survived early infancy, which in itself sounds suspicious since child mortality rates were quite prominent in the past. Could it really be true that Mrs. Vassilyev had 69 children?
What complicates the story and makes it even weirder is that Valentina’s husband eventually separated from her and married a second time. His libido remained strong and his mood procreative since Feodor had another 18 children with his second wife.
This information comes from the Monastery of Nikolsk which recorded births in the Russian countryside where the Vassilyev family lived. The monastery reported that, in 1782, Mr. Vassilyev was the father of 87 children altogether.
He would have been 75 years of age that year, and 82 of his children were reportedly alive at that time.
Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, people were hesitant to buy such a story. The French Academy is said to have tried to confirm the case, asking representatives of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Academy about the exact number of children.
From the Russian side came a cold answer, that there was no need to verify the information and that the children of the Russian couple were provided by the government in Moscow.
So the question remains, can a woman really go into labor 27 times and deliver that many babies during her lifetime?
Mrs. Vassilyeva would have given birth to her regiment of offspring in the time span of four decades, between 1725 and 1765. We can speculate it was achievable given that triplets or quadruplets typically arrive before the nine-month margin.
Science writer Adam Hadhazy has done some rough math on Mrs. Vassilyev’s case. Writing for the BBC, he says that “…Mrs. Vassilyev would have been pregnant for 18 years of the 40 years — half of the time, or two decades-worth of craving pickles and ice cream.”
Imagine also what a challenge it would have been to raise such an army of children. It must have been a wild house if the children were even half that number.
Hadhazy also wonders whether the Russian woman was really fertile over such a lengthy period of time. Once a woman enters her 40s, the chances of falling pregnant are drastically lower. By the end of her fifth decade, it’s rare to conceive a child.
The Guinness World Records website, which lists Mrs. Vassilyev as “the most prolific mother” ever, also says that the case “should be taken with a pinch of salt.”
The site further writes that “it is certainly conceivable that Mrs. Vassilyev could have had a genetic predisposition to hyper-ovulate (release multiple eggs in one cycle), which significantly increases the chance of having twins or multiple children.”
However, another argument relates to the matter of going into labor. Is it possible for a woman to endure and survive this painstaking process 27 times over? While it’s odd that 67 of the 69 children survived in times of greater infant mortality rate, it is also odd that the mother herself survived through so many childbirths, in times when the mortality of women during labor was also markedly higher than is today.
When all is said and done, it seems the odds of a woman conceiving, carrying and giving birth to 69 children are a bit on the weak side. There is no certain proof to say this was truly how it was, though nobody ever said it’s not possible.