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.

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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.

Another donor says, "I thought it was a little dream come true. I could have children and still have my life, and have the sense that I did something productive before I died."

They also donated because Graham flattered them. Most were gratified to be included in such a (purportedly) elite group. Graham flew around the country to close the sale with donors. He really buttered them up. He studied their work, quizzed them about it, and listened attentively to them. "I just felt if it was so important to him and not important to me, I could give it a trial for a little while," says the Entrepreneur. "Even though I knew it was not going to make much of a difference, I was happy that Graham was happy."

Only one of the SlateSeven shared Graham's fascination with eugenics, but most sympathized generally with his goals. They agreed that genes matter, and that a child would benefit from the DNA they could pass on. "I can solve relatively complex problems. If there is a better chance that offspring of mine will be able to solve problems, that's a good thing. So I was happy to help parents," says a donor who is now a professor. "I like the idea of producing more intelligent people. After all, if you could produce one person who could change the world as much as Shockley did, that would be worth it."

(The Average Guy dissents, arguing that Graham should have selected for altruism rather than intelligence and success. It was the interview Slate published with the Entrepreneur, in fact, that confirmed to the Average Guy that Graham chose badly. "Do we want people who will spend their lives on self-promotion and greed? Is it good to provide the world with more people like him?" says Average Guy.)

Altruism was their last-but-not-least reason for donating. The donors recognized that even if their offspring were not Shockleys, at least they could give some women with infertile husbands the kids they craved. "I knew it was not going to turn the world around, but if you make a couple of mothers happy, what's wrong with that?" says Entrepreneur.

So that is what the SlateSeven were. What are they now? There are no Nobels and no criminals. All of them seem smart and engaged in the world. Most write a good e-mail and talk a good game on the phone. Two are quite prominent. The rising young businessman became a fabulously successful middle-aged businessman. The emerging political activist has become a semi-famous, sometimes controversial political activist. The two promising graduate students are now junior professors at decent universities. One of the prodigies has retired from a successful career in the intelligence trade to do consulting and muck about with high I.Q. organizations (groups like Mensa, but higher I.Q.'s required). The Average Guy has returned to grad school, where he's finishing a degree in environmental policy. Most of the Slate Seven remain connected to hard science, which would please Graham, who valued science and scorned just about everything else.

The second child prodigy, who has abandoned hard science, has transformed most radically. He donated in the early '80s when he was a math whiz. Today he writes, "In many respects I feel I am a failure. The closest I have come to conventional success was when I made my living writing term papers for rich kids at Columbia, NYU, etc." But I don't think he really feels like a failure: He has just discarded the notion that intelligence, especially analytical intelligence, is an important measure of life. He has abandoned math and academia to become an artisan. "I have gone from being an intellectual whore to … I dunno what … I will never win a Nobel Prize, but I don't care. I will never make any 'great' contribution to science. No matter. I have come to terms with myself and who I am. This is the best part of growing old."

Some other donors, too, seem to be grappling with the burden of expectation. Several seem conscious of how well they have done in their profession versus how well a "genius donor" ought to have done. (In one sense, the burden of performance weighs more heavily on the genius donors than on the kids. The donors know they were supposed to be extremely accomplished, while most of the kids don't.)

Most of the donors have something unusual in common: an unsteady personal life. The vast majority of men their age are married and the vast majority have children. Yet only two of the seven, I believe, are married. Only three have their own (non-repository) children. Only one of the fathers is married to the mother of his child. (At least two men had relationships that foundered in part because the woman desired children. "She wanted to have children and I did not. But sometimes I would be in the next bedroom donating sperm. She did not try to stop me, but she was not happy about it," says Average Guy.)

I can't tell if this rockiness reflects sample bias or a deeper similarity among all repository donors (or even among all smart men). It may be that donors who don't have steady relationships or kids are more likely to contact me: They may be curious about their other genetic family. Donors with solid families, by contrast, may not think as much about their repository service.

Or perhaps there was a subtle selfishness among repository donors generally: Men who gave to such an ego-massaging sperm bank may tend to be more self-centered and thus less likely to maintain relationships. (Several of these donors, remember, say they gave so that they could pass on their genes without being inconvenienced by the actual work of fatherhood.) But this is all wild speculation.

Most of the Slate Seven remember their "work" for Graham with satisfaction. A couple are purely happy about it. They think fondly about any genetic kids. A couple are pleased with the venture in an intellectual way: They don't think much about any kids but praise Graham's goals. A couple feel slightly embarrassed by what they did. None thinks of himself as a father to the bank children. Even those who believe most strongly in heritability insist that fathers are made by nurture, not nature. Even so, all of them expressed some enthusiasm at the prospect of meeting their biological offspring, though they worry about tampering with the kids' families.

The Average Guy has the most perverse and complicated feelings about being a donor. He has kept obsessive track of his repository kids. He took notes every time a repository staffer contacted him to report a birth, allowing him to figure out his offspring's birthdays and sexes. He corresponded—anonymously through the repository—with one mother who used his sperm. Though the repository eliminated identifying information from the letters, he was able to figure out the first names and professions of her and her husband, as well as where they lived. (How did he find their hometown? you ask. The parents sent him a studio photo of their daughter: He searched photo studio catalogs to find the studio that used the logo embossed on the frame. Voilà! It was one in … I'm not telling. He showed me the photo: The girl's resemblance to Average Guy is astonishing.)

But despite his obsessive record keeping, Average Guy says he is often ashamed of what he has done. He is chagrined that he has selfishly avoided responsibility for raising kids. And he feels that spawning more than a dozen rugrats contradicts his own environmentalist ethos. "I am concerned about overpopulation and America's destructive appetite for resources. I have contributed to this problem in a big way by creating so many new consumers."

In one final way, the donors seem very much alike. All sound blue when they discuss their genetic offspring. They seem sad that they have kids they can't ever meet, can't watch grow up, can't ever help. They understand the melancholy reality of sperm donation. It's fatherhood without the responsibility, but also fatherhood without the delight.

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.comor by phone 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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