Can brilliant minds be bred? Multimillionaire eccentric Robert Graham thought so. With tremendous press hoopla, Graham started the Repository for Germinal Choice—popularly known as the Nobel Prize sperm bank—in California in 1980, offering infertile couples sperm allegedly donated by brilliant men. The center helped produce 215 children before it closed, after Graham’s death, in 1999. “It was the most radical experiment in human genetic engineering in American history,” says David Plotz, 35, deputy editor of the webzine Slate, “but we had no idea what happened.” Plotz, author of the new book The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, decided to find out.
Were Graham’s donors all Nobel Prize winners?
No. Graham got three Nobel Prize winners to donate sperm, including William Shockley, the physicist known for his racist views. After that, Graham had a hard time getting Nobel Prize winners and no babies were born from Nobel sperm. He recruited math prodigies, entrepreneurs, scientists. Gradually the quality slipped and he took volunteers, some of them men you might not wish on your ex-girlfriend.
Did the donors all have genius IQs?
Graham always asked for IQ test scores, but he didn’t vet them. Most were extremely bright, healthy, impressive physical specimens. But one donor told me he reported an IQ of 160 when in fact he had never been tested.
Did mothers who used the bank know their donor’s identity?
No, it was veiled in privacy. They chose from a catalog that listed profession, interests, health. Banks now are starting up identity release programs, where donors must identify themselves. It’s very valuable for kids to know their genetic identity.
How did you find the bank’s kids?
The kids found me. I wrote articles on the Internet inviting anyone involved to contact me, and soon I was hearing from donors, mothers and children who wanted to meet each other.
How many did you find?
So far more than 30 kids ranging in age from 7 to 23. I’ve connected eight of them with their donors, and counting. Just this week I connected three.
The big question: Are the kids geniuses?
They are above average as a group, but the range is very wide. The kind of woman who went to the Nobel sperm bank really cared about how her child turned out. They were determined to have accomplished kids. Measuring what the donor contributed is impossible.
Was it tough for them to grow up thinking they were programmed for intellectual greatness?
Some felt it as a great burden, and felt the pressure to excel from their mothers. For the most part it didn’t weigh on them excessively. Some even thought it was a little bit of a bonus.
So was the Nobel sperm bank a good thing?
It allowed women more choices than in the past, paving the way for today’s sperm banks, which offer men of every ethnicity, look and interests. But you can’t manufacture geniuses with a few smart sperm donors.