The Myths of the Nobel Sperm Bank
The truth about who gave sperm, how they gave it, and who used it.
For the introduction to the "Seed" project, click here.Other recent installments include an interview with a donor to the sperm bank and commentaries by sperm bank mothers. This is an update on how the search is going and a preview of what's coming next.
Last week, on a trip to Southern California to meet Nobel sperm bank mothers, I spent an afternoon with Paul Smith. Smith was the first director of the bank, the Repository for Germinal Choice. He is one of the few people remaining who knows how the repository worked and perhaps the only one who will talk about it. (Click
Smith—a sanitary engineer, dog breeder, and Vietnam draft-dodger—was repository founder Robert Graham's most zealous employee, and he has devoted his life to the cause of genius sperm banking (or "high-achievement sperm banking," as he calls it). He supervised the repository during its most notorious years, from 1980-84, and since he left, he has operated his own genius sperm bank, Heredity Choice. Today he and his wife, Adonna Frankel, run Heredity Choice from their home in the California desert. Click
Smith, Frankel, and I spent several hours discussing how the Repository for Germinal Choice actually worked. This is an interesting subject because essentially every bit of public lore about the sperm bank is false. When the repository opened in 1980, the press corps and public were enthralled (and sometimes horrified) by the myth of the "Nobel Prize sperm bank." No one ever learned its proper name because "Nobel Prize sperm bank" was such a mesmerizing substitute. Founder Graham played up the bizarre glamour of the operation, and the press loved it. Stories depicted a kind of strange James Bondian experiment: Majestic Nobel Prize winners were covertly handing over their precious life fluids to a mysterious millionaire inventor. He guarded these priceless vials ferociously, entrusting the precious semen only to the most superb women, Mensa-qualified geniuses who passed his rigorous qualifying tests.
In fact, none of this was true.
Graham, who made his fortune by inventing "impact resistant" plastic eyeglasses in the late '40s, had been obsessed since childhood with improving human genetic stock. Graham believed intelligent people had an obligation to go forth and multiply—he had eight kids himself. In the mid-'60s he started the Foundation for the Advancement of Man to pay for the birth and care of children born to poor married couples of "superior mental qualifications."
Eventually Graham fixated on the idea of using a Nobel Prize sperm bank to spread the best seed widely. (The sperm bank idea had originated in the '30s with Hermann Muller, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist. Muller, a communist, had tried to recruit Josef Stalin as a donor.) Graham's bank would provide women with "the choicest genes … above average is not enough," as one early pamphlet put it. In his view, the repository couldn't stop the social welfare system from breeding morons but could provide a few talented people who might repair the damage caused by the imbecilic masses. In 1978, after he sold his company Armorlite to 3M, Graham went to work. He housed the repository—essentially some liquid nitrogen storage tanks—in the basement of a well house on his San Diego estate. Later he moved it to a small office in Escondido.
Graham scoured California for Nobelists, approaching the more than two dozen who lived in the state. Only three agreed to give their sperm. Graham's assistant collected from them in 1979. But when Graham announced the Nobel sperm bank to the press in early 1980, the outcry frightened his laureates. Two immediately broke their association with the bank. Only William Shockley admitted his affiliation, but even he never donated sperm again. ("It's too bad," says Smith. "Shockley's sperm was actually pretty good.") Graham was left with a Nobel sperm bank with no Nobel sperm. (Graham also rationalized the Nobelists' departure by saying they were too old to provide decent sperm anyway.)
Without Nobelists, Graham needed a new scheme for his sperm bank. At this time, Smith arrived to assist Graham. His chief task was finding new donors. "Instead of recruiting Nobelists, I decided to predict who the future Nobel laureates would be," Smith says. He approached young scientists who had won awards. He haunted the campuses of University of California at Berkeley and Caltech, where young Übernerds are thick on the ground. At first, Smith and Graham focused on hard scientists and cared only about intelligence, but they soon realized their clients weren't satisfied with just brains. "Women would always ask how good-looking he was and how tall he was, and they would want to know if he was athletic. We realized that if you are going to offer choice, you have to offer women a real choice," Smith says.
Smith's hit rate was dismally low. He estimates he approached about 100 men during his four years at the bank, and only "six or eight, maybe 10" became donors. "Some of them thought I was a Nazi or the devil. Some of them had wives who said no. Some of them probably had had a vasectomy. Some of them probably knew they had some condition that would disqualify them," Smith says. (The repository collected elaborate medical histories of donors and excluded those with low sperm counts, bad family histories, or certain diseases.) And the repository didn't pay its sperm donors a penny, which also surely discouraged them.
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.