A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Was there really a Nobel Prize winners' sperm bank?

July 24, 2007

Dear Straight Dope:

I've heard jokes on TV shows about Nobel prize winners serving as sperm donors in the seventies. Where did this idea come from? Did it really happen?

SDStaff Gfactor replies:

Joe: With the exception of Eddie and myself, whom you already know, we're going to be using aliases on this job. Under no circumstances do I want any one of you to relate to each other by your Christian names, and I don't want any talk about yourself personally. That includes where you been, your wife's name, where you might've done time, or maybe a bank you robbed in St. Petersburg. All I want you guys to talk about, if you have to, is what you're going to do. That should do it. Here are your names [pointing to each respective member] … Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink.

Mr. Pink: Why am I Mr. Pink? —Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Yes and no, Kevin. I know of at least one Nobelist who donated sperm in the sense you mean. But when people talk about Nobel Prize-winning sperm donors, they usually mean the so-called Nobel sperm bank. One of the funniest things about it was its use of colors as code names for donors (that and the idea of elderly scientists masturbating into cups in motel rooms or office restrooms while a sperm bank employee waited).

However, the sperm bank didn't consist exclusively of Nobel winners, and in fact featured only a few. It boasted three Nobel laureate donors when it opened in 1980 (two of whom jumped ship when science pariah William Shockley announced he was the third), but donations were sought from others with high IQs. The outfit soon expanded its catalog to include accomplished athletes. David Plotz's book The Genius Factory (2005) traces the history of the Nobel-sperm bank, formally called the Repository for Germinal Choice. According to its founder, Robert Graham, it was a response to a problem of dysgenics – bright people weren't reproducing themselves. Graham, an optometrist who made his fortune by inventing shatterproof lenses for glasses, insisted the gene pool was being polluted by dull folk who were surviving at increased rates because of social welfare programs and improvements in public health. Graham published his theory in a book called The Future of Man (1970). Anthropologist Stanley Garn reviewed it in the 1972 issue of American Anthropologist and found little to like, calling it an "amateurish book, footnoted in a long-gone style, buttressed by citations from the Saturday Evening Post and Reader's Digest[.]" Garn noted that the book blamed the less intelligent for the French and Bolshevik revolutions and Graham's warning that "they plan it here too."

If Graham's ideas sound a bit like eugenics, that's because they are. Defenders will say they're an example of positive eugenics, as distinct from negative eugenics, presumably playing off the Oz-borne notion that you can have good witches and bad.

Negative eugenics is the idea that the government should prevent the unfit from breeding. It was popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1927 the Supreme Court even approved the practice of sterilizing "imbeciles" in Buck v. Bell, noting: "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Positive eugenics lacks the sturm-und-drang of negative eugenics but potentially is more fun – proponents think people with superior genes should have more procreative sex, preferably with each other.

In a Slate article called "The Better Baby Business," Plotz points out that many positive eugenics fans also favored negative eugenics, and that the movements were based on the same racial supremacist ideology. But he also says:

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?) … Some fairs featured a "human stock" tent – placed next door to the livestock barn – that promoted the "science of human husbandry."

Negative eugenics was shunned after World War II because it had been the basis for Nazi genocide. But positive eugenics still had a fan: scientist Hermann Muller argued that advances in health and welfare were permitting individuals who were genetically inferior to survive and breed. Muller won a Nobel Prize for his work on X-rays and genetic mutation. Fearing that the mutants would soon take over, he proposed a germinal repository – a seed bank – to preserve unmutated genes by freezing sperm. Muller, a socialist, even invited Joseph Stalin to donate sperm to his planned repository.

Graham was introduced to Muller after the latter read an early draft of The Future of Man. Impressed with Muller's work, Graham offered to make the germinal repository a reality. Muller died in 1967, well before the bank opened its doors. Graham originally called it the Hermann J. Muller Repository for Germinal Choice, but Muller's widow asked Graham to take her husband's name out of the title. Muller's widow claimed that Graham and Muller had parted ways over the question of what characteristics ought to be more plentifully represented in the gene pool. Muller, she said, insisted on selecting donors for characteristics like "heartfelt loving-kindness, a joyful disposition, musical proclivities, aptness at repartee, rapid calculation, courage or endurance, rather than solely exceptional intelligence," said a 1980 article in Canada's Globe and Mail.

Public response to the bank was mixed. Some scientists called it silly; moralists fretted about it. Recent study of the human genome has revealed a definite genetic component to intelligence, but at the time the question was controversial. Others felt nongenetic factors were just as important. Still others shared Muller's concern about whether intelligence should be singled out for genetic preservation.

The bank had problems from the start. The first was that the only person who publicly admitted donating was William Shockley, the father of the transistor and a Nobel Prize winner. But Shockley was also a much-reviled racist. As you might imagine, a sperm bank promoting eugenics and featuring a well-known racist to boot didn't get much favorable press. Second, the Nobel laureates who did sign up were too old to produce useful sperm. Shockley, for example, was 70 when the repository opened. The repository ultimately produced 217 children – not one from a Nobel donor. Third, the repository didn't do the best job in screening donors or recipients. Newspapers reported that Joyce Kowalski, the first mother to give birth to a baby from repository sperm, had a previous conviction for using birth records of dead children to get credit cards and bank loans; perhaps more salient were reports that she and her current husband had lost custody of the children she'd had with her first husband after the first husband alleged abuse. Similarly, when David Plotz investigated the repository, he learned of at least one donor who claimed an IQ of 150 but had never taken an IQ test. The repository closed in 1999, two years after Graham died.

The bank did have its good points. For one thing, it gave away its wares – it wasn't in business to make a profit. It also was the first sperm bank to offer women a genuine choice of donors. Previously donated sperm was mostly fresh, which meant it probably came from a medical student in the next room. Doctors tried to get someone who looked like the woman's husband, but that's about as close as it got to selection. The repository was the first to offer detailed descriptions of donors, frankly elevating the sorting process above that of many conventional hookups, which, let's face it, often comes down to "Aquarius," "BMW," and "nice abs."

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

References

Akst, Daniel, "One Man's Great Expectations: The Nobel Sperm Bank, Reassessed," Boston Globe, June 12, 2005: http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2005/06/12/one_mans_great_expectations/

Henig, Robin, "Seed Capital," Washington Post, June 12, 2005: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/09/AR2005060901519.html

Hollobon, Joan, "Plan to Mate Genes of Nobel Prize Winners With Very Smart Women is Silly, Scientists Say," Globe and Mail, March 7, 1980

Howley, Kerry, "The Man Who Marketed Sperm: From Eugenicist to Entrepreneur," Reason, October 2005: http://reason.com/news/show/32236.html

Interview with Robert K. Graham, The Eugenics Bulletin, Winter 1983: http://www.eugenics.net/papers/eb3.html

Matthews, Jay, "'Nobel Sperm Bank' Spawns Babies – and Questions," Washington Post, August 3, 1982

Olding, Paul, "The Genius Sperm Bank," BBC News, June 15, 2006: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/5078800.stm

Plotz, David, The Genius Factory (2005); see also http://www.thegeniusfactory.net/

Plotz, David, "The Genius Generation," Guardian, April 15, 2004.

Plotz, David, Seed: Exploring the "Nobel Prize Sperm Bank," Slate.com, http://www.slate.com/id/100331/

Shaffer, Marjorie, "Seeds of controversy – Marjorie Shaffer visits a sperm bank claiming to store 'top-notch' genes and remains unconvinced," Financial Times, November 16, 1995

"Sperm Bank's First Mother Once Served Time For Fraud," New York Times, July 14, 1982: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9E04E3DA1739F937A25754C0A964948260

Wieder, Sherry, "A California Sperm Bank Expounds on its Eugenic Mission" (letter to the editor), New York Times, July 9, 1982

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