The Myths of the Nobel Sperm Bank
The truth about who gave sperm, how they gave it, and who used it.
The few who signed up, Smith says, tended to be civic-minded men who sympathized with Graham's eugenic anxiety. "Show me a blood donor, and I will show you a sperm donor," says Smith. "One donor told me he thinks he is doing more for society with this than he has with any of his inventions or patents. And he has 17 patents."
(In case you were wondering, none of these donors have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, though Smith says that's because many of them are in mathematics and computer science, which are not Nobel categories.)
All of the repository's donors were white. Was Graham a racist? Click
Smith made house calls around the country to collect the sperm. One donor recalls meeting Smith at a seedy motel and supplying his sample there. Another time Smith had him use his office bathroom. Smith says he has never brought pornography with him: "My donors have always had sufficient imagination that I don't need it." When Smith appeared on television or in newspaper photos to promote the repository, he wore a mask or hid his face. That way, he says, secretaries and colleagues of his donors could not recognize him and know that he was gathering seed.
Smith traveled with a small mobile collection kit. The kit Smith uses today—a rolling flight attendant suitcase—contains a small tank of liquid nitrogen, a microscope, a centrifuge, collection cups, and something called a "Makler counting kit," which allows him to estimate the number of motile sperm in the specimen. He freezes the sample on the spot in the vapors of liquid nitrogen. Each ejaculation is divided into as many as five vials, each of which could be used for one insemination. Some later donors had to do all this work themselves. The repository would send them liquid nitrogen, collection cups, and vials and have them prepare their own samples. "You had to thaw the buffer, then ejaculate in a cup, then transfer it using a needle to vials, then freeze them for 40 minutes, then put them in the liquid nitrogen. It was incredibly time-consuming to do it," says one donor.
Graham and Smith advertised their wares in a highly unglamorous mimeographed catalog. It identified each donor with a color and number, summarized him—"Gifted research biologist at world renowned research center"—and described his personality, manual dexterity, hobbies, athletic achievements, and general health. It also listed standard features such as ethnic ancestry, eye color, skin color, hair color, height, weight, and general appearance. You can see sample pages from donors "
The other great myth of the repository was that it restricted its sperm to Mensa members. Graham did promote the repository in a profile for a Mensa magazine, but he never made Mensa membership—or any intellectual qualification—a condition. The repository took essentially any married woman who applied. (Graham's wife made him exclude single women and lesbians.) Smith says that hundreds of women applied in the first few years, and only two were rejected: one who was taking lithium, another who was obese and diabetic.
Most mothers, Smith says, didn't apply to the repository because they expected a superbaby. Almost all applicants had infertile husbands, so they chose the repository as the best of bad options. Repository literature did brag incessantly about the A-one sperm, but most clients seem to have recognized that this was not exact science. They hoped for a slight boost, not a mini-Nobelist.
Smith says that there was a remarkable concentration of doctors and nurses among the women applicants. My own investigation so far seems to confirm this. Of the six mothers I have spoken to, four are in the healing professions, and they sought the repository for the health as much as smarts. Says one mother who's a doctor, "I see terrible health problems all the time in 3-D—suicides, bad illnesses. I went to the repository because I did not want to plague a child with that."
Of the repository's hundreds of applicants, only a small fraction bore children. The process was inexpensive—Graham, who saw the bank as charity work, did not charge for sperm—but it was onerous. Sperm vials were mailed out to women or their doctors, who had to thaw and insert them at the right moment in the ovulation cycle. It frequently required several cycles before a pregnancy took, and some women never got pregnant at all. Mothers waived their right to sue if they didn't get pregnant, the right to know the donors, and the right to sue if a child didn't meet their expectations. Only 20 women had children by 1984, Smith estimates.
That was the year Graham dumped Smith as repository director after a defamation suit by another sperm bank. A rival bank in Oakland sued after Smith told a magazine reporter, "If [women] want defectives, they can go to Oakland." Smith took all the donors with him when he left the repository and opened Heredity Choice. (If you missed the sidebar about Paul Smith and the odd story of Heredity Choice, click
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.