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.
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.
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."
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
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.
Photograph of Robert Graham by Eric Myer.