The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
by David Plotz
A review by Carol Tavris
The Nobel Prize sperm bank was ill-conceived, but it was the seminal influence
on the generations of fertility institutes that followed it. Established in
California in 1980, the "Repository for Germinal Choice" was the brainchild
of Robert Graham, a seventy-four-year-old optometrist who had made millions
of dollars by inventing shatterproof plastic eyeglasses. Graham was one of those
uniquely American characters, the self-made millionaire inventor who, assuming
that success at making money imbues a man with wisdom on all matters of social
importance, sets out boldly with an entrepreneurial but delusional scheme to
improve mankind. And I do mean mankind literally, womankind generally not being
very interesting to these fellows.
Graham launched his bank with fanfare, announcing his intention to reverse
the dumbing-down drift of evolution that was creating inferior humans; if genetic
planning could improve animals and plants, he said, it could improve human beings,
too. The right sperm could, anyway. Graham's plan proceeded on what the sociologist
Barbara Rothman has called the "woman as flowerpot" view of pregnancy: you put
in a seed, and out pops the result nine months later. At first, Graham wanted
only smart flowerpots -women who belonged to Mensa, for example -but he gave
up that requirement right away. Moreover, Graham didn't value any old kind of
intelligence; no Nobelists in Literature, thank you, no winners of the Nobel
Peace Prize, no cellists, no comedians. By intelligence, he meant one thing:
having a practical, problem-solving ability -- as David Plotz notes, in his
lively and touching book The Genius Factory, "by miraculous coincidence,
exactly the same kind of analytical talent he himself possessed".
At first, the Repository for Germinal Choice did not offer much choice. Graham
had vials of sperm from several scientists, including three Nobel Prize-winners,
so the press immediately gave the Repository a new name: the Nobel Prize sperm
bank. Over the next nineteen years, only 215 children were born from the bank's
donors, and none to a Nobel winner. The bank closed in 1999, its founder dead,
its records sealed. Nothing was known of the children, their mothers, or the
donors. Plotz, an editor at Slate.com, decided to investigate. Who were they?
What happened to them? How, in only two decades, did the world change from one
in which a sperm bank was exotic, disreputable and shocking to one where potential
parents shop for designer sperm as if they were choosing a pair of shoes? The
Nobel Prize sperm bank died, Plotz writes, but all American sperm banks today
are its heirs, although they don't like to acknowledge its influence. They all
emphasize safety, the rigorous testing of donors, and "choice, choice,
choice" in the attributes one seeks in a genetic father.
Plotz's book explores both the historical and cultural story of sperm banks
and the personal stories of donors and recipients. For a country supposedly
so egalitarian and welcoming of diversity, America has always been fertile ground
for eugenic theories and horrific applications of them, usually on the poor,
the uneducated, the mentally ill, and of course women, usually without their
consent and sometimes without their awareness. (The first case of "artificial
impregnation" occurred in 1884, when a doctor injected a woman with sperm
from a volunteer medical student because the woman's husband was infertile.
The doctor had knocked her out with chloroform, and neither he nor her husband
ever told her the truth of how she happened to conceive.) But by the time Graham
opened the Repository, people were no longer interested in improving the race,
just in improving their children. With old-time eugenics dead, Plotz writes,
"private eugenics has arrived to replace it. If we can get better genes
for our own kids, many of us will do so. Just like the first Nobel sperm bank
customers, we are captive to the great delusion that we can control our children,
that we can make them what we want them to be, rather than what they are".
But Graham had a problem: few Nobel Prize-winners liked his idea, let alone
were willing to donate their sperm, and the scientists who were willing to donate
wanted to be anonymous. Riding to the rescue came William Shockley, who had
won a Nobel for his invention of the transistor and who shared Graham's vision
of improving the race genetically. Shockley acknowledged publicly that he was
a donor, thereby giving the "Nobel Prize sperm bank" its name and credibility.
Unfortunately for Graham, though, Shockley would not shut up. He aroused public
outrage by spewing his racist eugenic beliefs to all who would listen, humiliating
his family in the process. Thus he told Playboy magazine that he was
disappointed in his own children, who were "a very significant regression" from
his own abilities; though after all, he added, their mother lacked his own academic
achievements. Shockley, Plotz writes, turned the sperm bank "from a curiosity
into a menace and then into a joke". People began making fun of the whole enterprise.
How about a speciality sperm bank for Academy Award winners? For writers?
In spite of Shockley, in spite of the jokes, and in spite of the non-Nobel
and non-noble sperm in the Repository, the bank began to thrive. A woman named
Afton Blake conceived a baby she called Doron (Greek and Hebrew for "gift"),
whose abilities she promoted like a press agent on speed. Doron was an infant
prodigy and media darling, and within two years of his birth and attendant publicity,
more than one thousand women had submitted applications to the sperm bank. So
Graham and his staff set out to recruit more donors, relaxing the requirement
of genius. They quickly learned that American women didn't much care about having
sperm from smart men; they wanted sperm from men who were handsome, tall and
Plotz soon found himself acting as detective and matchmaker, tracking down
donors and brokering meetings with their offspring. These stories are the moral
and emotional heart of the book. "Donor White" fathered nineteen children, but
became deeply attached to the one whose mother sought him out. His reaction
is the reason that sperm banks forbid such meetings; "donor offspring" become
real children who laugh, play, have personalities, give you trouble, and make
you proud. In this case, the father needed the daughter more than she needed
him; she was a contented child who had no emotional void to fill. Other children
had a hole in their souls, and longed to find a "real" father unlike their distant
stepdads, or to have any father at all. Many were disappointed. One young man,
expecting to find a loving, genius dad, got Jeremy -- "an obscure doctor", Plotz
writes, "whose notable accomplishment in life was leaving a wake of ex-wives
and forgotten children". Plotz also interviewed the faintly creepy son of a
Nobelist who became a donor -- the son, not the dad. The son made a career of
donating sperm because, he said, "the main game of the universe, the only game
that matters, is the game of evolution, and you win by passing on genes. And
I wanted to win!". Here, said Plotz, is just what Graham hoped to produce, "yet
all I saw in him was the fickleness of DNA: here was a Nobel Prize baby, and
he was no prize at all".
That's the point, of course. As we are learning in this era of behavioural
genetics, genes contribute far more than we once believed to personality, temperament,
abilities and diseases; yet they are not the sole ingredients in the recipe
for a human being, nor can they ever be. In 1921, Lewis Terman began following
more than 1,500 children with IQ scores in the top 1 per cent of the population.
(William Shockley did not make the cut when Terman was recruiting; his IQ of
129 was too low, Plotz tells us, "a slight that Shockley carried with him
to the grave".) The children started out bright, healthy and well adjusted.
In adulthood, most became successful in the traditional ways of the times: men
in careers and women as homemakers. Yet some of the most gifted men failed to
live up to their early promise, dropping out of school and ending up doing low-level
work. Parental encouragement and the child's own motivation, not IQ, made the
difference between those who did well and those who drifted aimlessly through
And Doron Blake, the genius child, the prodigy? Now a young adult, he hopes
to teach high school. He is as articulate and smart as Graham could have hoped
for, yet he has rejected all that Graham preached about genetics and intelligence.
"Genes have never been important to me", he told Plotz. "Family
is the people you love. I feel a lot closer to people who are not my blood than
to those that are."
If Robert Graham had opened a food bank for the poor instead of a sperm bank
for the rich, he could have made a real difference in human IQ; after the Second
World War, IQs have steadily risen in most countries all over the world, largely
as a result of better nutrition for children and pregnant women. On the other
hand, given the consistent level of human stupidity that produces war, terrorism,
greed and folly, perhaps Graham should have stuck with inventing things; plastic
eyeglasses were an indisputable contribution to the improvement of the species.
Graham died in 1997, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science, where he had gone to recruit sperm donors. He fell in the hotel
bathtub and drowned. Plotz, with his unerring eye for detail and irony, noted
that Time magazine marked Graham's death in its "Milestones" column,
just above the news that the biologist Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel Prize-winner,
had been convicted of child molestation.
Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and the co-author of two psychology
textbooks. She is writing a book on self-justification in public and private