Valentina Vassilyev holds the world record for "Most Prolific Mother" as she allegedly gave birth 27 times to 69 children between 1725 and 1765.
In 1725, a Russian peasant gave birth for the first time. That alone would not be worth noting – except that she purportedly went on to have 26 more pregnancies. In all, Valentina Vassilyev is believed to have had an eye-popping 69 children thanks to births of twins, triplets, and quadruplets.
Today, Vassilyev even holds the the Guinness World Record as the world’s “Most Prolific Mother.” The site notes that “this seemingly improbable and statistically unlikely story is true” based on contemporary sources which seemed to have documented her many pregnancies.
But is it even physically possible for a woman to have nearly 70 children?
The 27 Labors Of Valentina Vassilyev
According to the BBC, the records of an 18th-century Russian monastery reported that Valentina Vassilyev gave birth 27 times between 1725 and 1765. Those 27 labors left the Russian peasant with 69 children because Vassilyev had several multiple births.
Over a 40 year period, Vassilyev purportedly had 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four quadruplets. That adds up to an astounding 69 children. And if it’s true, then Vassilyev spent much of her life pregnant.
According to Guinness World Records, Vassilyev gave birth for the first time around 1725 and for the last time around 1765. That means she would have spent 18 of 40 years pregnant before she died around the age of 76.
Perhaps even more incredibly, almost all her children are believed to have survived. In a 1782 report to Moscow, the the Monastery of Nikolsk noted that just two of her many offspring died in infancy.
So is any of this true?
Are These The Most Children Born To One Woman? Here’s The Evidence
As incredible as Valentina Vassilyev’s story may seem, there are a number of sources which suggest that she had the most children born to one woman.
In addition to the monastery records cited by both Guinness World Records and the BBC, there are also contemporary press accounts of Vassilyev’s 69 children. In 1783, The Gentleman’s Magazine discussed the claim that Vassilyev’s husband Feodor had not only had 69 children with her, but 18 more children with his second wife.
“In an original letter now before me,” the magazine writer noted, “dated St Petersburg, Aug 13, 1782, O. S. Feodor Wassilief [sic], aged 75, a peasant, said to be now alive and in perfect health, in the Government of Moscow, has had by his first wife 4 x 4 = 16, 7 x 3 = 21, 16 x 2 = 32, 27 births, 69 children. By his second wife 6 x 2 = 12, 2 x 3 = 6, 8 births, 18 children.”
The writer continued: “The above relation, however astonishing, may be depended upon, as it came directly from an English merchant at St. Petersburg to his relatives in England, who added that the peasant was to be introduced to the Empress.”
By today’s standards of evidence, a second-hand story from an English merchant may seem dubious. But many other contemporaneous sources mention Vassilyev’s many children as well.
“In the day of 27 February 1782, the list from Nikolskiy monastery came to Moscow containing the information that a peasant of the Shuya district, Feodor Vassilyev, married twice, had 87 children,” one author reported in an 1834 book. “His first wife in 27 confinements gave birth to 16 pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets. His second wife in eight confinements gave birth to six pairs of twins and two sets of triplets. F. Vassilyev was 75 at that time with 82 of his children alive.”
However while Feodor’s name was attached to these stories, Valentina often went unnamed. In fact, there is some doubt about what her first name even was. And despite the sources about her pregnancies, many also doubt that it’s possible for one woman to have 69 children. So — is it?
Valentina Vassilyev And The Limits Of Nature
Would it be physically possible for a woman to give birth to 69 children, especially in the era before modern medicine?
From a scientific perspective, it’s certainly possible for a woman to be fertile for 40 years. It is also not impossible for a woman to have 27 pregnancies during her fertile years, although Vassilyev’s final pregnancy took place after the average age of menopause.
And it’s also possible to have multiple sets of multiple births. A condition called hyper-ovulation causes some women to release several eggs during each menstrual cycle, which increases the odds of a multiple birth. Perhaps Vassilyev had such a condition though, given her husband’s track record, it also seemed that multiple births ran in his family.
That said, could a 18th century Russian peasant survive 27 high-risk pregnancies, including several at advanced maternal age?
“Nature would want to make limits,” Stanford obstetrics professor Valerie Baker said according to History Daily. “Pregnancy is the most physically rigorous thing a woman’s body ever goes through.”
James Segars, Director of the Division of Reproductive Science and Women’s Health Research at Johns Hopkins University, agreed in a BBC interview. “In the past, every pregnancy was a risk to the mother’s life,” he said.
But while it’s possible that Vassilyev survived 27 pregnancies, it’s statistically unlikely that she would have had so many multiple births. Northeastern University professor Jonathan Tilly, who researches women’s fertility, says “Even just the 16 sets of twins? I’d be shocked.”
And it’s also unlikely that so many of her children would have survived. By the end of the 18th century in Russia, over a quarter of children died in infancy. Given this, Vassilyev’s children had a surprisingly good mortality rate.
That’s especially true since twins, triplets, and quadruplets have an even higher mortality rate than single babies, because they are often born prematurely. “Even if you had four sets of quads today, I’m not sure they’d all survive,” Segars explained in 2015.
So is it possible that Valentina and Feodor Vassilyev’s children had such a low mortality rate in a time where more than 25 percent of Russian children did not survive infancy? Once again, it’s possible — but unlikely.
Despite these doubts, however, Valentina Vassilyev does hold the world record for “Most Prolific Mother.”
Valentina Vassilyev’s World Record
As Guinness World Records notes: “Numerous contemporaneous sources exist, which suggest that this seemingly improbable and statistically unlikely story is true and [Vassilyev] is the woman with most children.”
Why? As the site notes, both monastery records and contemporary press reports seem to back up the story that Valentina Vassilyev and her husband had 69 children (and that he went on to have even more).
Of course, records can be inaccurate, as can reports from merchants in distant lands. Historical sources that mention Vassilyev do not definitively prove her story. After all, during Vassilyev’s prolific childbearing era, a British woman reportedly gave birth to rabbits. That story quickly appeared in magazines and newspapers across the country.
Plus, the physical challenges of birthing 69 children in the 18th century also creates doubt about Valentina Vassilyev.
So is the story real? Was Vassilyev the woman who had the most children in world history? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And perhaps we’ll never know for sure.