When Albertha Allen (a 28-year-old farm mother from White Castle, Louisiana) was rushed to Charity Hospital on Monday night, June 26, 1950; she was in severe pain. Mr. Frank Smith, an orderly, noticed the large size of her abdomen and, without asking any questions, rushed her to the maternity ward. Dr. Bertha Wexler, head resident physician, immediately examined her and came to the conclusion that she would soon give birth to triplets.
As the babies began arriving that Tuesday morning, Dr. Wexler and her assistant, Dr. George Howell, were in for quite a surprise. After three babies were born, they soon realized that there were more to come. “I didn’t think about quintuplets,” Dr. Wexler said, “since the chance is one set of quintuplets in every 57,000 births.”
Both doctors were so concerned about the mother’s poor medical condition that the excitement of delivering quintuplets was dispelled. While in labor, Ms. Allen, suffering from eclampsia, began having convulsions and had to be heavily sedated. She had no idea she had given birth to five babies!
News of the babies’ arrival made a big splash in the city’s metropolitan press. The town of White Castle, deep in the sugar cane country upriver from New Orleans, was astonished at the news of the babies’ arrival.
Born between 7:15 and 8:15 a.m. at intervals of about 10 minutes, all 5 babies were placed on a pillow together, put in an incubator and covered with balls of cotton. They ranged in weight from 3 quarters of a pound to a pound each. They were born three months premature and given little possibility of surviving. Within the next 5 hours, all three boys and two girls would die.
Dr. Bertha Wexler did not believe Ms. Allen had had any medical attention before she came to Charity Hospital. She also felt that the babies could have been saved if the mother had come to the hospital 3 weeks earlier.
Neighbors said they noticed Ms. Allen was all “puffed up” when she left the farm on Monday, but they thought it was due to diabetes and to her upcoming twins. Dr. Joseph P. Musso of White Castle said he had treated a Ms. Albertha Allen for diabetes a year ago.
Albertha Allen had worked on the Sabin Falcon Plantation as a $3.00 day laborer. She lived in a modest one-room shanty without any trimmings and was on state relief at the time of her pregnancy.
The plight of Ms. Allen is but one example among thousands of African-American mothers who suffered from insufficient medical care. Poverty, lack of medical information, and racism combined to make a disproportionate infant mortality rate a common part of black family life. Though her children entered the world nearly a century after slavery’s end, social conditions had not changed much for those who toiled in Louisiana’s cane fields. The attention of a doctor was often too great an expense for the families of laborers who struggled to edge out an existence on the meager wages they were paid. The newspapers made note of the fact that Ms. Allen had to work in the fields until just three days before she was stricken with excruciating pain. Unfortunately, neither she nor her neighboring laborers were conscious of the precarious condition she was in. The famed “White Castle” nearby still towers over fields that were fertile with cane yet proved deadly for innocents like Ms. Allen’s five children.
Records show that Albertha Allen was a member of the St. John Baptist Church in Dorseyville. She gave birth to six children who grew to adulthood and who survived her upon her death. She died on Wednesday, January 7, 1980 in Baton Rouge at the age of 58 years old.
Sources: State Times Advocate, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) June 27, 1950 page 6; Sunday Advocate, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) January 11, 1981; The Louisiana Weekly, July 01, 1950 page 1 (photo and article).
Lolita Villavasso Cherrie