The Better Baby Business

The Better Baby Business

The Better Baby Business

Exploring the "Nobel Prize sperm bank."
March 13 2001 11:30 PM

The Better Baby Business

The Nobel sperm bank wasn't the first scheme to breed "superbabies." The weird history of "positive" eugenics.

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. 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 seven articles in the Seed series, including the introduction that explains the project.

Robert Graham
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
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Reporters and scientists welcomed the Repository for Germinal Choice—the Nobel Prize sperm bank—with gleeful derision. When Robert Graham announced in 1980 that his Nobel sperm would improve the world's "germ plasm" and slow the onslaught of "retrograde humans," he was treated as a Rip Van Winkle crank, someone who had snored through 40 years of eugenic disgrace.

By 1980, the "eugenics" Graham preached was an epithet, a bad dream. Graham was a last gasp of a once enormous American eugenics movement, a historical crusade that was half-odious, half-goofy. (To be fair to Graham, he belonged with the goofs.)

America has tried to forget its forty-year affair with eugenics—for good reason. As Daniel Kevles chronicles wonderfully in his 1985 history In the Name of Eugenics, the American eugenic experiment compiled a mostly dismal record during the first four decades of the 20th century. ("Eugenics," which means "good in birth," arose as a movement in late-19th-century England, popularized in particular by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin.)

East Coast WASPs dominated American eugenics, and they feared that the magnificent northern Europeans who built America were being swamped by masses of genetically inferior Jews, Irish, Italians, and blacks. They were alarmed by statistics showing that the poorest—and hence "least fit"—Americans were bearing the most children.

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In the teens and '20s, this paranoia fueled the "negative eugenics" craze. Negative eugenicists were the authoritarians, believing government must halt the propagation of undesirables. Congress and statehouses fell under their spell, passing bill after eugenic bill. The 1924 immigration act choked off immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Most state legislatures enacted laws restricting marriage by "idiots," the mentally ill, and people with venereal diseases. More than a dozen gave the state the power to sterilize rapists, epileptics, drug addicts, alcoholics, the feeble-minded, and the mentally ill. The Supreme Court endorsed this practice in the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, supporting forced sterilization of a single mother—a "moral imbecile." Wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough." The United States sterilized more than 20,000 citizens during the first third of the century.

(Nazi Germany embraced negative eugenics, extending it vilely. The Nazis sterilized almost a quarter-million people deemed "unfit" for reasons of health—often really for religion—and eventually murdered more than 70,000 people in German asylums.)

The horrors of negative eugenics overshadowed the more benign side of the movement: "positive eugenics." Rather than ordering vasectomies on mental patients, positive eugenicists encouraged the fit (Cabots, Roosevelts, etc.) to go forth and multiply. Of course, many eugenicists favored both positive and negative approaches, and positive eugenics was infused with the same WASP supremacist ideology as negative eugenics.

Still, positive eugenics was more silly than malicious in practice. In the years leading up to the Great Depression, the American Eugenics Society sponsored "Fitter Families for Future Firesides" contests at state fairs. Families were prodded and poked and quizzed to determine which was most "eugenic." (What was valued was never exactly clear. What kind of "intelligence" or "health" was being measured?) In Kansas, winners were paraded in cars through the fairgrounds under a banner reading "Kansas' Best Crop." Some fairs featured a "human stock" tent—placed next door to the livestock barn—that promoted the "science of human husbandry."

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Positive eugenics seeped into school curricula. College classes instructed undergrads—especially women—to remember their patriotic duty to spawn well. Popular advice books urged young adults to pick mates wisely to ensure the best possible offspring. (Click here for a particularly ridiculous incident in positive eugenic history: the 1928 "eugenic baby.")

Positive eugenics never inspired the same kind of legislative action that negative eugenics did. The positive eugenicists were far less organized and far less effective. I found only one American example of a government-backed positive eugenics program. In the late '30s, the Pioneer Fund, an extremely conservative, segregationist organization founded by a Massachusetts millionaire, persuaded the U.S. Army to endorse a eugenic project. As Douglas Blackmon chronicled in a wonderful Wall Street Journal story, the Army Air Corps allowed the fund to pay a $4,000 bonus to any corps officer with at least three children who fathered another child in 1940. The fund believed that the corps officers, many of whom were skilled pilots, were choice American stock (and all white, to boot). According to Blackmon, 12 children qualified for the payment. In 1999, he tracked down eight of them. They had grown up to be modestly successful. At least none were criminals. (The Pioneer Fund scheme resembled contemporaneous positive eugenics in Nazi Germany, which did have state-promoted baby-making. Click here for a brief discussion.)

The Great Depression—in which the "best" Americans helped cripple the nation—slowed eugenic enthusiasm in the United States. World War II ended it. The revelation of Nazi eugenic atrocities made the topic taboo.

Negative eugenics was utterly discredited, but positive eugenics didn't entirely disappear. Its new champion was Hermann Muller, a idealist and socialist who won the 1946 Nobel Prize in medicine for demonstrating that radiation caused heritable mutations in fruit flies. After the war, Kevles writes, Muller became alarmed about the buildup of mutations in the human gene pool. Some harmful mutations were passed on from generation to generation, but natural selection had ensured that the worst mutations were eliminated. People who had them were rarely healthy enough to reproduce. But public health advances now allowed folks with more mutations to survive and breed. Magnifying this problem, Muller warned, were increasing radiation levels, which accelerated mutation rates. In several generations, Muller predicted, the accumulation of mutations would enfeeble mankind, turning us into pathetic, degraded shadows.

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The salvation, Muller preached, would be "germinal repositories." We would collect and freeze sperm from distinguished, healthy men. This vital DNA would be doled out to would-be mothers, preserving the vigor of the species. (Muller believed that in the face of a mutation crisis, men would abandon their selfish fixation on reproducing their own damaged genes in order to guarantee their children's health. Muller's faith that men would act selflessly highlights one of the great flaws of the Nobel sperm bank. Click here for an explanation of the flaw.)

Muller did not worry much about the health of the female eggs and made no provisions for them. Roald Dahl wrote a short comic novel lampooning Muller's idea. In My Uncle Oswald, the hero travels the world tricking famous men—James Joyce, for instance—into giving him sperm for a bank.

Muller's germinal repository idea languished on the fringe of acceptability until millionaire Robert Graham agreed to fund it in the 1960s. Graham had long been obsessed with positive eugenics. He proposed several schemes for increasing the reproductive rate of the best Americans—subsidies for graduate students who procreated; corporate sponsorship of fecund employees—but he was most enraptured by the notion of germinal repositories.

Graham and Muller squabbled over whom their repository should recruit. Muller favored selecting donors for intelligence and altruism. Graham cared only about intelligence. So it was only after Muller died and Graham sold his eyeglasses company that Graham could open his Nobel sperm bank. (You can read more about the history of the Nobel sperm bank in this earlier Seed installment.)

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Graham dreamed that every city would eventually have its own genius sperm bank, but he couldn't have been more wrong. The idea bombed. Only two men followed him into the genius semen business. Paul Smith, an ex-employee of Graham's, runs a small eugenic sperm bank called Heredity Choice. (Click here for Smith's strange story.) And in the early '90s, Floyd Kimble, a fabulously wealthy Ohio businessman, endowed his "Foundation for the Continuity of Mankind" with $30 million. Kimble shared Graham's fears of genetic decline and struck up a friendship with him, and the name of the Kimble foundation paid homage to Graham's "Foundation for the Advancement of Man." Kimble also gave Graham's foundation $400,000 in 1994.

Kimble's foundation was more Noah's ark than sperm bank: It planned to store sperm—as well as plant seeds and animal sperm—in case of disaster or general genetic degradation. It did not distribute the semen to clients. According to Floyd's widow, Doris Kimble, "my husband believed we were losing a lot of the better genetic traits of our fathers and forefathers." The foundation collected sperm from 65 men and kept it in an old Spokane, Wash., bank vault—a bank, get it? The Kimble foundation is dormant but still has its gigantic endowment. It also had an embarrassing race scandal, which you can read more about here.

The Nobel sperm bank is dead, the Foundation for the Continuity of Man is comatose, Heredity Choice is tiny. The notion that America must safeguard its "germ plasm" sounds ridiculous.

Yet positive eugenics persists, reborn again in a less goofy and probably more important form than ever. For Graham and for eugenicists in the '20s, the goal was public health and national survival. The goal of today's eugenics is consumer choice. We are entering an age of private positive eugenics. Soon scientists will be able to manipulate embryonic genes—perhaps eliminating diseases, increasing resistance to illness, even augmenting intelligence. It will be done by apolitical doctors, not conservative millionaires, and it will be done for the good of individual patients, not the for the good of society.

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If you have a connection to the Repository for Germinal Choice—whether as a donor, client, child, 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

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Part 10: The donors

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

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5. Eugenics, Privatized


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