No Nobels, One "Failure," a Few Regrets

Exploring the "Nobel Prize sperm bank."
March 30 2001 3:00 AM

No Nobels, One "Failure," a Few Regrets

How did the genius sperm-bank donors turn out?

Slate's"Seed" project is chronicling the history of the Repository for Germinal Choice, the "Nobel Prize sperm bank" founded by millionaire inventor Robert Graham in 1980. We have been searching for the 240-plus children conceived through the bank, their parents, and the men who donated the sperm for them. The left-hand column on this page displays links to the 10 articles in the Seed series, including the introductionexplaining the project.

Advertisement

During the past two months, more than a dozen families and donors from the Repository for Germinal Choice have contacted Slate to tell us their stories and, sometimes, ask our help in finding sperm-bank kin. But the flow is drying up. We haven't heard from anyone new in a few weeks, and I suspect we may have reached everyone we can through Slate. (Click here for explanation why.) So it's time to draw the first conclusions—extremely tentative, unscientific ones—about the Nobel sperm bank's babies, parents, and donors. This piece will examine what the donors are like. Coming installments will study parents and kids and explore how the repository changed the sperm-bank industry.

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

(Important note: This does not mean the Seed project is folding its tents. Slatewill continue to pursue several promising leads; to troll in other places for repository kids, families, and donors; and to try to unite families and donors who are looking for each other—see " A Mother Searches for 'Donor White.' " We will keep publishing updates as we learn more. So if you have a connection to the Repository for Germinal Choice—whether as a child, parent, donor, or employee—and you would like to share your story anonymously, please contact me by e-mail at plotzd@slate.com or by phone at (202) 862-4889.)

When I started working on Seed, I thought there was one mystery to solve: Who are the children from the Nobel sperm bank, and how did they turn out? But I soon found a second puzzle: Who are the donors to the Nobel sperm bank, and how did they turn out? After all, you can't judge whether "genius" genes affected the sperm-bank babies unless you know something about the genes they got. Were they getting DNA from the most brilliant minds in the country or from regular Joes? I was also curious to learn how the donors feel about what they did: Do they regret it? Do they think about it? Do they feel their "kids" to be their own? It turned out that Graham's donors were not exactly whom I expected, and they have not turned out as I expected.

As I reported in an earlier story, Graham's alleged "Nobel Prize sperm bank" was nothing of the sort. He recruited only three Nobelists—notably transistor inventor William Shockley—and none of their seed ever found purchase. When he realized Nobelists wouldn't cooperate, Graham settled for what he could get: younger scientists, the occasional businessman, and a couple of Olympic athletes. In the '90s, when that donor pool was drying up, he hit up promising graduate students and men he found in "Who's Who."

Seven men recruited by Graham contacted me. Of them, five donated successfully. Graham dropped the other two men for unspecified medical reasons. The five successful donors seem to account for about 30 of the 215 kids born to the repository. I located a sixth successful donor—responsible for approximately a dozen offspring—but he declined to be interviewed.

Of course my sample is not representative. These donors chose to contact me. I have no idea how the SlateSeven compare to the 50 or 100 other donors who did not contact me. I suspect that the Slatesters are younger. Most of them donated in the late '80s and '90s, and only one was in the repository's first donor stable. (These younger men may have found me because they are more likely to be online and see Slate.)

The Slatesample reflects Graham's constrained ambitions. The SlateSeven were bright but not Olympian when Graham tapped them. Two were child prodigies who had earned advanced scientific degrees at precocious ages. Two were promising graduate students. One was a rising businessman. (See " ' The Entrepreneur' Speaks.") Another was a political activist who shared Graham's conservative views. One counseled troubled kids. They were impressive, but certainly not the most celebrated and accomplished men of the age.

Several of them note, in fact, that Graham seemed almost desperate when he recruited them. He told them that most of the men he approached rejected him and that he was having a hard time keeping his cryobank stocked. Graham was so strapped for geniuses that he even accepted a volunteer, a donor who asks to be called the "Average Guy." Click here to read about his peculiar experience, including the funniest story I've heard about the repository.

Why did the donors cooperate with Graham's eugenic scheme? Almost all cite the same four reasons. It was a Darwinian fantasy come to life. None was a father at the time he donated, and most welcomed the idea of having kids without responsibility for them. "I just felt some drive to reproduce, and this was a way to express that drive without being a parent. It was a selfish act—the ultimate selfish act," says the Average Guy.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.