The Rise of the Smart Sperm Shopper
How the Repository for Germinal Choice accidentally revolutionized sperm banking.
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 200-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 other 11 articles in the Seed series, including the introduction explaining the project.
By most of the standards Robert Graham set for his Repository for Germinal Choice, it failed. Graham's sperm bank did produce more than 200 children—much to their parents' delight—but Graham's grander ambitions crashed. He hoped the sperm bank would restore credibility to eugenics and galvanize Americans into saving their degrading gene pool. Instead, the press mocked and derided the bank as arrogant folly. He thought he would recruit many Nobel Prize winners to supply him with sperm, but most Nobelists laughed at him, and not a single baby was born to a Nobel father. Graham wanted the repository to be the prototype for hundreds of such genius sperm banks across the country. But today there is only one tiny "high-achiever" sperm bank, and it's struggling. (Click
Graham had one great success, but it was something he never intended. He helped revolutionize the sperm-bank business. Graham, an ultraconservative, inadvertently became a progressive sperm-bank reformer. Though he believed that elites should control the sorry masses, he somehow emerged as a great democratizer. He was an accidental father of consumer reproductive choice.
To appreciate how Graham improved the sperm donation business, you need to understand how horrible it used to be. The first reported case of donor insemination occurred in 1884, though it was considered so shocking that it wasn't reported publicly until 1909. Dr. William Pancoast, a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, found that a woman in his care couldn't get pregnant because of her husband's infertility. At the urging of some of his medical students and with the permission of the husband—but not the wife—Pancoast anesthetized her and impregnated her with semen taken from the "best-looking" student in the class. She never was told what was done to her or that her husband was not her child's father. This kind of subterfuge, made-up-on-the-spot, loosey-goosey standards and reliance on overwilling medical students would become the dismal defining qualities of donor insemination (DI) practice.
Such DI with fresh semen was practiced, though uncommonly, during the first half of the 20th century. After World War II, DI became more common, though no less secretive. Doctors supplied patients—always married women with infertile husbands—with fresh sperm gleaned from medical students, residents, and colleagues. (Many a doctor over 50 funded his medical-school socializing with sperm donation.) The process was haphazard, at best: The donors supplied only brief medical history and weren't tested for disease. Doctors ruled patients utterly. Women were given little or no choice about their donors. Anonymity was absolute: In most cases, no records were kept. (Some doctors didn't even bother finding a donor: They just used their own semen.)
The furtiveness was understandable. Through the '50s and into the '60s, most states held that DI children were bastards and that impregnated women had committed adultery. In 1954, for example, Cook County in Illinois declared DI "contrary to public policy and good morals." The pope condemned DI as a sin.
The law turned in favor of sperm donation during the '60s. A 1968 California Supreme Court decision confirmed that the social father of a DI child indeed assumed all paternal rights. The 1973 Uniform Parentage Act, adopted by every state, established this principle nationwide.
At the same time, sperm banking emerged as an alternative to insemination with fresh sperm. New freezing techniques allowed semen to be stored for months in liquid nitrogen "cryobanks." Sperm banking remained a small business, though. When Robert Graham decided to open his cryo-repository in the late '70s, he found very few competitors, notably the California Cryobank in Los Angeles.
Dr. Cappy Rothman, co-founder of the California Cryobank and a pioneer in male infertility research, knew Graham and viewed his Nobel sperm bank as a blight on the profession. "When he brought in William Shockley as a donor, that was the worst blow for sperm banking," says Rothman. "And his eugenics, his perception of where the human race should go, they were terrible."
Yet Graham's repository catalyzed the field. Even Dr. Charles Sims, the other co-founder of the California Cryobank, conceded in a 1983 interview that the repository "changed the face of sperm banking forever."
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.
Photo by David Plotz.