The inseminators

The Genius Factory: unravelling the mysteries of the Nobel Prize sperm bank

David Plotz <em>Simon

In February 1980 a millionaire named Robert Graham made headlines in California by creating a sperm bank. It was called the "Repository for Germinal Choice" and its unique selling point was that its donors were all Nobel prize-winners. Graham had made his money patenting plastic lenses for spectacles, but his real passion was eugenics. He believed America needed to improve its gene pool. With this in mind, he wrote to as many Nobel laureates as he could shake a test tube at and asked them to meet him in roadside motels, where he could collect samples of their semen. Remarkably, a few took up his offer.

In the subsequent 19 years, 215 babies were born using the "genius sperm" that Graham, who died in 1997, had collected and frozen. In all but a couple of high-profile cases, both donors and offspring remained anonymous. All that changed when David Plotz, an editor at Slate online magazine, wrote an article about Graham and invited anyone who had been involved in the programme to contact him. E-mails trickled in - from sperm donors, women they had inseminated, and from the offspring of this unique genetic experiment.

Plotz set to work piecing together some of their stories - a kind of in vitro Surprise, Surprise!. The women had chosen their donors from a catalogue outlining the men's academic and other interests, along with their hair and eye colour. Over the years, Plotz discovered, many of the resultant children had become curious about the identity of their brilliant fathers; and some of the fathers, who had scattered their DNA across America like latter- day Johnny Appleseeds, also daydreamed about the children they had produced.

The results of Plotz's interventions, however, were not quite what any of the parties hoped for. Graham had quickly lowered the bar for potential depositors at his bank. His Nobel winners were getting on a bit, and the genius factor alone did not prove overwhelmingly attractive to most potential mothers, who were more concerned with the general health and mental well-being of the men Graham had persuaded to masturbate for America. A few years after it opened, all you had to do was wander into Graham's clinic boasting a high IQ, and you would be ushered into a locked room.

Plotz is acute about both the comedy and the serious implications of this history. He is at his best, however, when managing the expectations of those who believed he could give them the joined-up family they had dreamed of. In a couple of cases, with the consent of all parties, Plotz engineers just that: a brilliant and "childless" man is united with one of his 19 children, who brings a light to his declining years; while "Donor Coral", the most successful of the Graham bankers, finds a couple of his many sons, who thought he might be Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, but who discover that he is actually a destitute Florida doctor, crippled by child maintenance payments from all the other children he had loved and lost in more conventional ways.

Plotz candidly questions the motives of the men who see it as their mission to breed indiscriminately - egomaniacal but not wholly irresponsible behaviour that seems to meet a psychological need. He comes to think of them as "The Inseminators". In this, as elsewhere, he manages to tread some tricky ethical lines without losing his sense of humour.

One of the implications of his findings is that Graham's eccentric, slightly sinister and failed plans prefigure a future that is largely with us. Plotz reckons that there are a million children in America born from donor insemination, mostly to lesbian couples. For this growing multitude, Graham's pioneering catalogues have become the industry norm, with the more austere sperm banks now routinely including details of the intelligence and interests of their donors. Though they do not like to admit it, Plotz asserts, "all sperm banks have become eugenic sperm banks".

Plotz properly resists the temptation to judge this process, and instead leaves us with a vision of the new all-American family, one he has just united and left at an airport: "Tom, who was too adult for his 18 years; Tom's childlike father, Jeremy, the careless 'genius' sperm donor; Tom's [Russian] immigrant wife, Lana; Tom's half-sisters Stacy and Mimi . . . and, asleep in his car seat, Tom's own son, Darian, the heir to Nobel sperm bank genes, which is to say, the heir to God knows what".

Tim Adams writes for the Observer

This article first appeared in Now is the time to act

2005-07-04