The Myths of the Nobel Sperm Bank

Exploring the "Nobel Prize sperm bank."
Feb. 23 2001 3:00 AM

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.

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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 here for why there is so much silence.)

David Plotz David Plotz
David Plotz is Slate's deputy editor. If you are interested in sharing any information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, send it toplotzd@slate.com

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 here to read more about Smith and the very odd history of his sperm bank.

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.

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 here for a brief discussion.

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.

Adonna Frankel and Paul Smith with a mobile collection kit

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 " Fuchsia No. 1," " Coral No. 36," " Turquoise No. 38," and " White No. 6."

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 here.)

After Smith's departure, Graham became his own chief recruiter. He wrote solicitation letters to young men listed in scientific "Who's Who" guides. He attended scientific conferences and introduced himself to promising new Ph.D.s. (Graham kept conference-going till his death, literally. He died at age 90 when he slipped in a bathroom at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) Graham came to recognize that not all women were excited by lab coats, so he expanded his stable to include athletes, artists, and businessmen. According to one report, he even tried to persuade Queen Elizabeth's husband, Prince Phillip, to donate. (Given that the prince has never shown any evidence of any kind of brain activity, the solicitation certainly does not speak well for Graham's notion of achievement.)

Graham's son Robin says his father was "aloof" to his own children. Graham seems to have reserved his warmth for his sperm bank kids. He visited many of them and wallpapered his office with their snapshots. One mother wrote me that she has always considered Graham, not the donor or her ex-husband, the father of her children.

The repository produced about 15-20 kids per year through the late '80s and early '90s, but Graham's 1997 death essentially killed it. Graham had funded it out of his own pocket, probably to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars per year. Graham had considered providing for the repository in his will but eventually left the decision to his heirs. His wife and children apparently didn't share his enthusiasm, and the bank closed in early 1999.

News of the shutdown shocked some mothers. Some had hoped they would be able to use the repository to find their donors or their kids' half-siblings. Indeed, the repository staff had helped several moms correspond anonymously with their donors. The repository's closure ended any hope of further contact. The repository destroyed its thousands of semen samples. As for the repository's records, no one will say what happened to them. State law does not require the repository to keep its records and certainly doesn't require it to release any information to mothers. No one connected to the repository in its final days is willing to talk about the records, either to me or to mothers who want to find their donors.

This vacuum is the main reason why mothers are contacting Slate. The records are gone, so they hope the collaborative power of the Web can help them find donors and siblings. And that is exactly what the next Seed articles will do.

For a preview of what's coming next and an update on the search for families and donors, click here.

If you have information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, or if you are a mother, child, or donor who wants to tell your story anonymously, please e-mail me at plotzd@slate.com, or call me at (202) 862-4889.

The Seed Series

Part 10: The donors

Click here for Michael Kinsley's explanatory introduction to Seed.

Join the Discussion

5. Eugenics, Privatized


If you are interested in sharing any information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, send e-mail to plotzd@slate.com.

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