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The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank

4.2 5
by David Plotz

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It was the most radical human-breeding experiment in American history, and no one knew how it turned out. The Repository for Germinal Choice–nicknamed the Nobel Prize sperm bank–opened to notorious fanfare in 1980, and for two decades, women flocked to it from all over the country to choose a sperm donor from its roster of Nobel-laureate scientists,


It was the most radical human-breeding experiment in American history, and no one knew how it turned out. The Repository for Germinal Choice–nicknamed the Nobel Prize sperm bank–opened to notorious fanfare in 1980, and for two decades, women flocked to it from all over the country to choose a sperm donor from its roster of Nobel-laureate scientists, mathematical prodigies, successful businessmen, and star athletes. But the bank quietly closed its doors in 1999–its founder dead, its confidential records sealed, and the fate of its children and donors unknown. In early 2001, award-winning columnist David Plotz set out to solve the mystery of the Nobel Prize sperm bank.

Plotz wrote an article for Slate inviting readers to contact him–confidentially–if they knew anything about the bank. The next morning, he received an email response, then another, and another–each person desperate to talk about something they had kept hidden for years. Now, in The Genius Factory, Plotz unfolds the full and astonishing story of the Nobel Prize sperm bank and its founder’s radical scheme to change our world.

Believing America was facing genetic catastrophe, Robert Graham, an eccentric millionaire, decided he could reverse the decline by artificially inseminating women with the sperm of geniuses. In February 1980, Graham opened the Repository for Germinal Choice and stocked it with the seed of gifted scientists, inventors, and thinkers. Over the next nineteen years, Graham’s “genius factory” produced more than two hundred children.

What happened to them? Were they the brilliant offspring that Graham expected? Did any of the “superman” fathers care about the unknown sons and daughters who bore their genes? What were the mothers like?

Crisscrossing the country and logging countless hours online, Plotz succeeded in tracking down previously unknown family members–teenage half-brothers who ended up following vastly different paths, mothers who had wondered for years about the identities of the donors they had selected on the basis of code names and brief character profiles, fathers who were proud or ashamed or simply curious about the children who had been created from their sperm samples.

The children of the “genius factory” are messengers from the future–a future that is bearing down on us fast. What will families be like when parents routinely “shop” for their kids’ genes? What will children be like when they’re programmed for greatness? In this stunning, eye-opening book, one of our finest young journalists previews America’s coming age of genetic expectations.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

It was the most radical breeding experiment in American history. In 1980, eccentric millionaire inventor Robert Graham began recruiting Nobel Prize winners and other gifted men as donors to a "genius sperm bank." Before the so-called Nobel Prize Sperm Bank closed its doors in 1999, its elite donors had fathered more than 200 children. Strangely though, this grand, ambitious plan ended in nullity: After Graham's death, the confidential records were permanently sealed and the identities of the children and donors shielded. Then, in early 2001, award-winning Slate columnist David Plotz set out to find the real people behind this audacious project.
Robin Marantz Henig
Plotz raises some compelling questions about the nature of genius, the meaning of genes and the idea that, as he so nicely puts it, "there is serendipity in DNA." This is perhaps his most serious point: that a seemingly ideal sperm donor -- indeed, any father or, for that matter, any mother -- "can pass on a lousy set of genes. A recessive illness may be hiding somewhere, or just mediocrity. Women shop carefully for sperm in hopes of certainty. But there is no certainty in a baby."
— The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
The book's history is as circuitous as the repository's. Mr. Plotz, who is the deputy editor of Slate and writes with endearing, rueful humor, was originally drawn to the story of William Shockley, who by inventing the transistor had "midwifed the birth of Silicon Valley and kicked off the greatest commercial revolution in American History." That Shockley was a flagrant racist who also "made himself one of the memorably noxious public figures of the twentieth century" further piqued the author's interest … Mr. Plotz's kindness and sympathy are indisputable.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Building on a series of articles he wrote for Slate, Plotz investigates the legacy of the Repository for Germinal Choice, a California sperm bank that was to have been stocked exclusively by Nobel laureates. Very few donors in the institution's 19-year run really had Nobels, and the one publicly acknowledged laureate was William Shockley, a notorious racist. Plotz has fun poking holes in the eugenic vision of the repository's founder, self-made millionaire Robert Graham, and his ambition to collect "the Godiva of sperm." More captivating, however, is Plotz's recounting of the efforts of the women who visited the repository to discover the identities of their donors. As he gets to know a cluster of families and donors, Plotz reaches insightful conclusions about the unforeseen emotional consequences of artificial insemination. The "reunions" his research helps bring about include the elderly scientist who adopts a grandfatherly role in a young girl's life and a teenager who takes his wife and infant son along to meet his "dad" and finds him sharing a house with Florida drug dealers. The attempt to breed genius babies may have an aura of surreal humor, but the sensitive narration always reminds us of the real lives affected-and created-through this oddball utopian scheme. B&w photos. Agent, Rafe Sagalyn. (On sale June 7) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Not just a history of the sperm bank founded in 1980 by Robert Graham, but a report of the author's encounters with the bank's employees, its donors, its donorees-and the children that resulted. When Plotz began writing about the so-called Nobel Prize sperm bank for Slate, where he's a deputy editor, he asked that anyone involved with the experiment contact him. The result was a series of e-mails, which, in turn, led to the series of articles that form the basis of this, his first book. Plotz provides a profile of Graham, a millionaire optometrist with a mission to halt the genetic decay that he believed was threatening the human species, his solution being to found the Repository for Germinal Choice, which he hoped to stock with the sperm of Nobel Prize winners. The involvement of physicist William Shockley, a Nobelist with alarming racist views, turned the bank "from a curiosity into a menace and then into a joke," and its two Nobel donors quit. Graham then looked for men of accomplishment who were younger, taller, more athletic and better looking than Nobel laureates to fill the orders from women eager to bear children with "superior" genes. In 1999, two years after Graham's death, the bank closed, having produced only 215 children. Of those, Plotz made contact with 30, in person, by phone, or by e-mail. His stories about them are revealing, sad and comic. From his small and admittedly nonrandom sample, he concludes that while they aren't geniuses, these people do tend to have attentive mothers with high expectations who push them to excel. Nurture, it would seem, trumps nature. Still, Graham's sperm bank did, for the first time, allow women opting for artificial insemination to makeinformed choices from catalogues of well-described donors, a practice now standard in the thriving sperm bank business. As a bonus, Plotz offers an entertaining firsthand account of what's involved in becoming a present-day donor. Fresh, funny, with deft profiles of singular individuals.
From the Publisher
Advance praise The Genius Factory

“The Genius Factory is a riveting account of a truly bizarre episode in American history–Robert Graham’s crusade to save the human race. David Plotz has written a superb book about the quest for genius, and, ultimately, family.”
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point

“I want to start a terrific writers sperm bank, and the first seed I want in the inventory is David Plotz’s. Plotz has it all. He’s an incredible, unstoppable reporter–unrelenting yet always fair and compassionate–and a deft, witty writer. Plotz’s account of the Nobel Prize sperm bank is an absorbing, surprising, deeply human tale of deceit and megalomania, of hopes and dreams and eugenics gone wild.”
Mary Roach, author of Stiff

“One part detective story, one part cultural snapshot, and one part just plain weird, the tale of California’s infamous Nobel Prize sperm bank is unexpectedly enthralling. David Plotz gives us the science, the business, the ambitions, and most especially the people: from founders to donors to mothers and children. A marvelous and thoroughly engaging read.”
Atul Gawande, author of Complications

“If it weren’t so disturbingly true, The Genius Factory would be a gripping work of science fiction. David Plotz’s terrific reporting uncovers one man’s quest to ‘improve’ the species and its complex, touching, troubling, very human repercussions.”
Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players

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The Los Angeles Times headline beckoned like a bulletin from the future: “Sperm Bank Donors All Nobel Winners: Plan Seeks to Enrich Human Gene Pool.” It was February 29, 1980, Leap Day—that strange quasi-day seemed right for such an otherworldly story. The article began by describing the sperm bank as “the world’s most exclusive men’s club,” then piled on the weirdness: a reclusive zillionaire . . . a secret cadre of Nobel geniuses . . . the women of Mensa . . . a mysterious, ultramodern fertility technology . . . a sinister experiment to improve the human race. It sounded like something out of a James Bond movie.

The article introduced America to Robert K. Graham—a most unlikely sperm banker. The seventy-four-year-old optometrist, who had made $100 million by inventing shatterproof plastic eyeglasses, was on a mission to collect sperm from Nobel laureates. He was storing the prize seed in an underground bunker on his Escondido, California, estate, and he was distributing it only to women smart enough to qualify for the high-IQ society Mensa. Graham had given his sperm bank a name that had the thud of second-rate science fiction: “The Repository for Germinal Choice.”

Graham told Times reporter Edwin Chen he had already enlisted three Nobel prize–winning scientists to “deliver” their sperm, and eventually he intended to canvass all the world’s Nobel laureates. So far, Graham said, two dozen Mensa women had contacted him—he had told the Mensa Bulletin about the bank a few months earlier—and he had shipped frozen Nobel sperm to three of them.

The sperm bank was not a prank, Graham insisted to Chen, and not a rich man’s folly. Graham said he was trying to save mankind from genetic catastrophe. In modern America, the millionaire complained, cradle-to-grave social welfare programs paid incompetents and imbeciles to reproduce. As a result, “retrograde humans” were swamping the intelligent minority. This “dysgenic” crisis would soon cause the evolutionary regression of mankind, as well as global communism. How could we save ourselves? Graham had the answer. Our best specimens—and “specimens” is just the kind of word Graham would use to describe people—must have more children. His Nobel Prize sperm bank would father a cadre of leaders, scientists, and politicians who would help reverse the genetic decline. Graham was not charging his customers or paying his donors. He and his Nobelists were making a gift of the genius genes, a lifesaving present to a dying world. Graham promised to study the children of his supersperm, tracking their development, achievements, and IQ. He would publish his findings in scientific journals, vindicating his extraordinary semen and his experiment.

Graham outlined his ideas to Chen with an unapologetic bluntness. “The principles of this may not be popular, but they are sound,” he said. “So far, we’ve refused to apply to humans what we already know and apply to animals and plants.”

Graham gave Chen a tour of the bank, such as it was. Graham owned ten beautiful acres in Escondido, a thriving town half an hour northeast of San Diego. In Graham’s prizewinning garden, in the shadow of the American flag that Graham flew over his property, sat a concrete bunker the size of a modest bathroom. The bunker was a few feet underground and slightly dank. It had once been a pump house; Graham had converted it into a small laboratory. Its prize equipment was a lead-sheathed, waist-high vat of liquid nitrogen. Graham opened the vat and showed Chen what he claimed was the Nobel sperm, a few dozen ampules frozen at 196 degrees below zero centigrade.

Graham wouldn’t disclose the names of his three Nobel donors, so Chen wasn’t sure if Graham was an honest eccentric or a con artist. After all, Nobel laureates’ sperm looked like anyone else’s; Graham’s vials could just as well have contained seed from his gardener. Chen called every Nobelist he could find in California and asked if he had made a sperm deposit. One after another said no. A dozen had never heard of Graham’s project. Another ten admitted that Graham had contacted them but said they had turned him down. Most were scornful. “It’s pretty silly,” Medicine Laureate Max Delbrück told Chen. Chemistry and Peace Laureate Linus Pauling said he had nixed Graham: “The old-fashioned way is still best.” Medicine Nobelist Renato Dulbecco, who hadn’t been contacted, burst out laughing at the idea, “Oh come, come. This is fantastic. . . . It’s too late for me. I was vasectomized long ago.”

Finally Chen reached Stanford’s William Shockley, whose invention of the transistor had won him the 1956 Physics Nobel. Chen asked his question. After a long, long pause, Shockley said, “Yes, I’m one of them. This is a remarkable attempt, and I am thoroughly in sympathy with this sort of an approach. Everyone talks about it, but by God, Graham is doing something about it.” Chen had his story. The Nobel sperm bank was for real.

A remarkable photo of Graham illustrated the Times article. At first glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It showed a handsome elderly man with perfect posture and a formal bearing. Graham wore a camel’s-hair blazer and a perfectly knotted polka-dot tie. His crown of thick gray hair was Brylcreemed to a high shine. It looked like a photograph from a midcentury corporate annual report: Our CEO at work. But then you noticed Graham’s eyebrows were jauntily cocked. And his hands were sheathed in weird, massively thick oversized mitts. And he was standing in a laboratory, not a boardroom, with a microscope perched on a shelf behind him and a huge metal drum at his feet. The caption read: “Robert K. Graham in his underground chamber. At lower left, the sperm repository, made of thick lead to shield it from radiation.” The picture was a mesmerizing conflation of future and past, the 1950s businessman and his twenty-first-century project. All at the same time it exuded optimism, pragmatism, malevolence, and goofiness.

Chen’s Los Angeles Times article provoked an international sensation. Chen has been a journalist for more than thirty years on some of the most important beats in the world (he now covers the White House for the Times), and he says he has never experienced anything like the frenzy of February 29. Journalists called him by the dozen; so did desperate women hoping to score genius sperm. Graham, too, was inundated with media requests. Reporters from all over the country wanted to see his magic vials and quiz him about his intentions. Graham’s subterranean chamber became the ground zero of the future. The press immediately gave the “Repository” a much flashier nickname: the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.” The nickname pleased Graham, who started using it himself.

On March 2, Graham held a press conference in his backyard. He spent most of the session rebutting accusations of sexism, racism, elitism, white supremacism, and Nazism. Yes, Graham conceded, all his donors were white, and it was true that he gave sperm only to married women, not lesbians or single women. But he was no Nazi. “I don’t know much about Hitler and his vision. I don’t see a parallel. We aren’t thinking of a super-race. We are thinking in terms of a few more creative, intelligent people who otherwise might not be born.”

But in giddier moments, Graham was dreaming bigger than just “a few more creative, intelligent people.” His little Repository was a “pilot project,” he said. Soon it would seed similar banks around the world. Every city would have its own genius sperm bank. There wouldn’t be just a few superkids, but thousands of them. Given enough time, Graham mused, genius sperm banks might help “stimulate [man’s] ascent toward a new level of being, of which his present organic status may be only the crude beginning.” His Repository, Graham hoped, might one day give birth to mankind’s “secular savior.”

Other people could have conceived the idea of a Nobel sperm bank, but no one except Robert Graham could have conceived it and made it a reality. Graham had the right-wing politics of a self-made millionaire, the relentless inquisitiveness of an inventor, the can-do spirit of an entrepreneur, and the moxie of a salesman. Together, these qualities made him confident that his sperm bank was the right idea, rich enough to fund it, and certain that he could market it to a skeptical public. It was also no accident that Graham was in southern California, the ground zero of American libertarianism. In 1980, California culture was a clash between freethinking futurism (new-ager Jerry Brown, “Governor Moonbeam,” was in the middle of his second term) and hard-right political conservatism (former governor Ronald Reagan had swept the New Hampshire primary just three days before the Times article). In Robert Graham—and perhaps only in Robert Graham—these alien theologies intersected. His sperm bank sought to harness scientific libertarianism and dreamy futurism, and put them in the service of rigid social control.

Here’s my favorite Robert Graham story.

In the early 1970s, when he had tired of running his eyeglasses company but wasn’t yet collecting Nobel sperm, Robert Graham tried to start a country. He thought an island would be best. Graham instructed George Michel, a vice president at his firm, Armorlite, to locate an island that Graham could buy and flag as a sovereign—or at least semisovereign—nation. Graham instructed Michel that the island should be at least five miles wide and fifteen miles long.

Michel hired several Los Angeles real estate agents, and they eventually located four or five promising candidates, mostly small islands in the Atlantic Ocean that Great Britain might surrender for the right price. Graham was thrilled. Next, he assigned Michel and several Armorlite colleagues to design the island’s living and working quarters. Graham decreed that the island had to be completely self-sufficient and that no cars would be permitted on it. Michel drew blueprints for prefabricated living saucers that could be stacked on land or in the sea. He designed a futuristic sewage system, greenhouses, and food factories. His masterpiece, Michel recalls fondly, was a vacuum-tube-driven transportation system, in which gyroscopically balanced pods would zip passengers from one part of the island to another.

Graham’s island wasn’t the usual kind of millionaire’s ego trip. Graham didn’t aspire to rule his kingdom. He lived to play handmaiden to great men—men he thought were better than he was. Graham intended to create an elite research colony. Graham would invite the world’s best practical scientists to the island, offer them lavish living conditions and the fanciest laboratories money could buy, and let them start inventing. Grahamland would support itself: when scientists produced something valuable, they and the colony would share the royalties. The inventors would get rich, and Grahamland would prosper. Graham was convinced that scientists would flock to his island, because he was sure they wanted what he wanted: an escape from the morons, weaklings, and imbeciles who increasingly dominated the rest of the world. Science would be Grahamland’s god and its law. It would be a rational empire, Graham’s own private Atlas Shrugged.

Grahamland never progressed beyond the planning stages. Michel quit Armorlite in a stock dispute. Graham got distracted and never managed to buy the island. But the private nation was pure, distilled essence of Robert Graham: the entrepreneurial vigor; the cockamamie grandeur; the unshakable faith in practical science; the contempt for the pig-ignorant, lazy masses; and the infatuation with finding—and claiming—the world’s best men.

Robert Graham was born on June 9, 1906, in Harbor Springs, Michigan. When he was a rich old man, Graham liked to tell stories that made it sound as if he’d grown up on the frontier—kerosene lanterns instead of electricity, hauling water up the road for the Saturday-night bath. This was bogus nostalgia. Though Harbor Springs was small (only 1,500 residents) and rural, there was no pioneer hardship. Harbor Springs was a resort, the summer playground of midwestern royalty, and it was enjoying its heyday as Robert was growing up in the 1910s and ’20s. The town sat on Little Traverse Bay, a gorgeous inlet of Lake Michigan at the northern tip of the state. Harbor Springs famously had the cleanest air in America: the west winds racing over the lake stripped the air of pollen and dust. Hay fever sufferers made Harbor Springs a summer refuge in the late nineteenth century. Thanks to railroads and a ferry, the rich soon followed for the beautiful harbor and the long summer nights. The Harbor Springs summer census was a who’s who of American business: Cincinnati’s Gambles (Procter & Gamble), Louisville’s Reynoldses (aluminum), Illinois’ Pullmans (trains), Michigan’s Upjohns (pharmaceuticals), and many other names from the fronts of supermarket packages and the backs of automobiles. They built “cottages”—Newport-like mansions—along the town’s glorious beaches. And they got together to establish Michigan’s most exclusive country clubs, purchasing huge tracts of land, fencing them off, and laying out the first golf courses in the state.

Robert Graham was born into the local gentry—the respectable year-rounders who were acknowledged by the summer folk but not of them. His father, Frank Graham, was the local dentist and prospered by treating both locals and tourists. Frank had graduated first in his class at the University of Michigan dental school, married Fern Klark, and settled in Harbor Springs in 1903. He built himself a fine shingled Victorian house on East Bluff Drive, the street where the richest townies lived. Fern Graham was a gracious, gentle woman, but Frank was chilly and formal. When he took a walk on the town beach, he wore a coat and tie. Frank was a clever man, however, an inveterate tinkerer. He invented a new carburetor for boat engines and designed a collapsible keel for sailboats. After the Titanic sank, Frank spent years trying to build a better lifeboat.

The oldest of four children, Robert inherited his mother’s grace and his father’s inventiveness and formality. But he may have inherited even more from Harbor Springs. Growing up in the resort town instilled in Robert Graham a lifelong obsession with the rich and the great. (This is a man who titled the longest chapter in his autobiography “Princes and Princesses I Have Known.”) In summer, Graham caddied at Harbor Springs’ two private golf courses, Harbor Point and Wequetonsing. Graham caddied to earn pocket money—75 cents for eighteen holes—but also to spend time around powerful men. The respectful adulation he would perfect as a genius sperm banker—he learned that on the golf courses of Harbor Springs. Some eighty years later, Graham wrote about caddying in his memoir: “I know of no other situation in which a boy can be in the company of leading and outstanding individuals, hours at a time. He can learn some of their ways of thinking and talking, their matters of concern and some of their foibles.” (Graham carried the bags of famed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, among others.) Caddying prodded Graham’s ambition in another way: it made him greedy. The Graham family was plenty prosperous, but he was a townie, a second-class citizen, practically a ragamuffin compared to Harbor Springs’ majestic summer migrants. Like many middle-class kids who spend their lives around the rich, Graham smelled money and developed an appetite for it. “I saw these wealthy summer people enjoying themselves at leisure and concluded that wealthy was the way to be.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

David Plotz is deputy editor of the online magazine Slate. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In a world where we strive for perfection and genetic studies are advancing, the story of the Noble Prize Sperm Bank seems to belong on the big screen. The story, told by David Plotz, follows a few families whose lives were changed when they approached the bank that claimed to hold the sperm of Noble Prize winners. As each of the bank 'babies' stories are told, the true history and workings of the bank are revealed with surprises for both the families who benefited from its 'services', and the donators themselves. The story is a caution towards those parents who wish to create a child from the perfect genes, as well as a insight for the power that parents have on their children.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the first books I've ever read where an idea was actually fully carried out. This book definitely delivers on multiple levels. It's very intriguing and well-written the author is very articulate and focused. I can't believe no one thought about writing this book sooner, but I'm glad they didn't. No one could have written about such a crazy topic as well as the author did here. Definitely recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In trying to unravel the mystery behind Robert Graham¿s Nobel donors sperm bank and what happened to the ¿genius kids¿, David Plotz gives us all a ¿peak¿ into the reality facing families created with the help of donor sperm. The book is as engaging as any good fiction novel except that the ¿drama¿ is real. It strikes a cord in all of us because while following the ¿genius kids¿ stories it also tries to answer some basic questions: how important really are our genes? Can we shape ourselves and our kids or are we predestined by nature? What makes a ¿family¿ relation? The book is a ¿must read¿ for those who are looking to adopt (or have been adopted) and/or are considering other choices such as donor insemination, egg donation and especially for the million(s) of kids that have been conceived with help of donor insemination, egg donation as well as for anyone that has ever donated to a sperm/egg bank.