The "Genius Babies" Grow Up
What happened to 15 children from the Nobel Prize sperm bank?
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 the late 1970s. 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 12 articles in the Seed series, including the introduction explaining the project.
Two months ago, a 16-year-old Midwestern boy—let's call him "Jon"—discovered he is not who he thought he was. Jon's mom, "Sarah," informed him that his father was not his biological father and that he was conceived using "genius sperm" from the Repository for Germinal Choice. Jon had been telling his mom that, while he would definitely attend college, he also wanted to enroll in professional wrestling school. She decided he needed to know "he had more potential than that."
Jon wasn't shocked to learn of his Nobel sperm bank origins. Sarah had been intimating for years that Jon shouldn't take his father—a difficult man who's had trouble holding jobs—as a role model. "She had been dropping hints since I was in the sixth grade. She told me I had the potential to do better than him. Once, a few years ago, she said something about how I didn't have to worry about Dad's genes—which is good because he's not the most savory character."
(This family home is surely peculiar at the moment. Jon's father, who isn't around much, doesn't know that Jon has discovered his origins. Jon's younger sister has no inkling that her brother is Nobel sperm bank kid—and that she is, too.)
The idea that he was specially conceived through the repository has galvanized Jon. He scoured the Web for information about the repository and e-mailed Slate to see what we knew. He has researched the repository's history, concluding that founder Robert Graham, who died in 1997, "was pretty much a Nazi," but that the results of his sperm bank—such as himself—weren't so bad.
Is Jon what Graham dreamed of when he built his genius sperm bank? Jon doesn't adore school, but he's still going to graduate a year early. He's "pretty good at math" but not at science. He favors history and English. He likes music, which in his case means rap. (He's writing lyrics for a group that he started with some friends.) He says learning about his genetic head-start has made him concentrate a bit more on school work. "Before I thought I didn't have the potential. Now I think I have got the potential and that I'm just lazy," he says, half-joking.
Jon, in short, is a very typical American teen-ager. His life is slightly more unsettled and his origins are slightly more scenic, but he is not some bizarre Überkid. He is a bright boy, a fine, funny talker, an energetic correspondent. Will he succeed at what he tries? I expect so. Will he be a leader of renown or an inventor of genius or a Nobel Prize-winner? I doubt it, but who knows?—he's only 16.
Jon's biography is echoed in the other repository kids Slate located. They show very much promise, but they are very much children. I have interviewed nine families with 15 children conceived through the repository. (I have also corresponded some with three other families that have four kids and e-mailed cursorily with another child.) These 15—or, counting the brief contacts, 20—kids are a fraction of the entire repository crop of 219 kids. (How did I
The Slate 15 range in age from 6 to 19, with most falling between 10 and 16. The group consists of eight boys and seven girls. The 15 represent eight different donors, but there is a bizarre bias toward one donor. Seven of the 15 come from
I know less than I would like to about these children. I have communicated directly with only three of them, all teen-age boys. Parents have provided detailed information to me about the other dozen, but their second-hand—and admittedly biased—accounts lack the vividness of a real interview. Still, it's hard to fault the moms and dads for their reluctance to bare their children to the world. Many of the parents told me they're horrified by the very public life of Doron Blake, the Nobel sperm bank's most famous kid. They recoil at the idea of similarly exposing their darlings. (Click here to read a profile of Doron, one of the three kids I did interview.)
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.