By Marie Villani-York
When Kingsbridge resident Ethel Collins was wheeled into Lebanon Hospital on a spring evening nearly six decades ago, she was sure she was having triplets.
The results of an X-ray photograph — the method doctors used at the time to take a peek into the womb — clearly showed three babies.
So on that fateful evening of May 4, 1949, starting at around 4:30 p.m., Mrs. Collins began pushing, and three babies came into the world. Then Dr. Milton J. Goodfriend, the attending obstetrician, made a startling discovery.
“Wait a minute, there’s something else in here … It’s a fourth child,” Dr. Goodfriend reportedly told the mother. A baby girl, weighing only three pounds, seven ounces, joined her two brothers and sister, who were warming under the incubator.
And just like that, 27-year-old Mrs. Collins and her husband Charles Collins, 29, became the parents of New York City’s first set of surviving quadruplets and soon after, the thankful recipients of an outpouring of media attention and generosity the world over.
On Dec. 24, at the age of 88, Mrs. Collins died surrounded by the large family that made her a local celebrity.
She was still living in the Riverdale home — on West 231st Street and Independence Avenue — that was built especially for her oversized family and donated by the organization Quad Haven. It was designed by the Bronx chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and built by Bronx contractors and Riverdale artisans.
Mr. Collins, who was working as a securities analyst on Wall Street, remarked to a New York Times reporter in a story a day after the birth that the family’s “living space problem was going to be a tough one.”
The story was picked up nationally and internationally, and not a year later, the Collinses were given the keys to their new home. Community members and organizations also donated food, scales, cribs, diapers and even beer — thought at the time to be good for breastfeeding — to the young family, said Mrs. Collins’ granddaughter, Kathryn Collins, who lives in Rye, N.Y.
Mrs. Collins was born in Manhattan on July 23, 1920, to Victor and Leath Raymond. Her father was a landlord, and Ethel would often assist him in various endeavors.
Mr. and Mrs. Collins met in their teens, and embarked on a long courtship that was sealed at the altar on July 26, 1941. She became a full-time homemaker, and the couple had their first child, Stephen, in 1946. Three years later, she became pregnant with the quadruplets.
Without the use of fertility drugs, multiple births were uncommon at the time, but certainly not rare.
According to The Times story on the Collins births in 1949, two years early, another city mother, Mrs. Raymond Mazzie, gave birth to quadruplets. Born premature, three of the four died a few hours later.
The Collins Quads — in order of their birth, Andrew, Barbara, Edward and Linda — had a combined weight of 17 pounds, 14 ounces. The heaviest — Edward — weighed five pounds, five ounces, while the youngest, Linda — thought at first by the doctor to be nothing but a shadow on the X-ray — was the smallest.
Like their parents, the quadruplets — who will mark their 60th birthdays this year — became local celebrities, and were invited to groundbreakings and special events in Riverdale. The Collins’ five children continue to live close by.
Kathryn Collins said her grandmother was the “center of family life,” often playing host during family celebrations and holidays.
She said she will be remembered for her “generous spirit and witty sense of humor,” as well as her ability to make friends and nurture friendships. Mrs. Collins was also an animal lover who sheltered and cared for a number of pets over the years, she added.
Mrs. Collins is survived by her husband Charles Collins of Riverdale; her children Stephen and his wife Catherine Collins of Bronxville, N.Y., Andrew and his wife Linda Collins of Hartsdale, N.Y., Barbara and her husband Robert Urban of Baldwin, N.Y., Edward and his wife Janet Collins of Yonkers and Linda and her husband Hugh Magee of Yonkers; grandchildren Anne and her husband James Loos of Hartsdale, Kathryn Collins and her husband Nicholas Dambrosio of Rye, Anna and her husband Christopher Coppolecchia of Hartsdale, Charles Magee and his wife Stacey Rampata of South Salem, N.Y., Kelly and her husband Peter Pavone of Los Angeles, Eric and his wife Heather Collins of Yonkers, Carol Urban of Baldwin and Elizabeth Collins of White Plains, N.Y.; and greatgrandchildren Emma Loos and Isabella Collins.
A funeral service was held on Dec. 26 at Williams Funeral Home in Kingsbridge. Mrs. Collins was cremated.