In 1980, a media feeding frenzy briefly surrounded the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank that promised to inseminate women with the seed...

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

by David Plotz

Random House, 262 pp., $24.95

In 1980, a media feeding frenzy briefly surrounded the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank that promised to inseminate women with the seed of the best and brightest. It was started by Robert Graham, an eccentric California millionaire who’d helped invent plastic eyeglass lenses. He believed America faced a “genetic catastrophe” and desperately needed more people like himself — intelligent, analytical and, yes, white.

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Graham’s idea was to breed a new elite crop of disciplined minds, to become the nation’s new leaders. He’d collect the semen of successful businessmen, scientists and inventors and give it only to the fittest of potential mothers.

Most notoriously, Graham claimed several Nobel Prize winners among his anonymous donors, leading to the Repository’s nickname of “the Nobel Prize sperm bank.” (One Nobelist who admitted his participation and helped publicize the bank was William Schockley, co-inventor of the transistor.) Though he used only white donors, Graham insisted he wasn’t racist. Yet his philosophy of genetic improvement was heavily influenced by the “eugenics” movement of the early 20th century, whose theories about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to breed heavily influenced the Nazis’ racial policies.

No births resulted from the Nobel winners’ donations. (Most Nobel winners, and all the ones who donated to Graham, were beyond their peak sperm-potency years.) After the initial publicity wave, Graham turned his recruiting focus from mature scientists to promising young graduate students. Giving in to women’s desires for more potentially well-rounded kids, he had his staff recruit sperm donors on the basis of looks and athleticism as well as brains.

In the 19 years the bank operated, more than 200 babies resulted from its work. But during that time, sperm banking and artificial insemination became a mature industry. Newer, more professionally operated banks opened around the country. Despite Graham’s desire that it keep going, the money-losing Repository closed shortly after his death.

David Plotz first investigated the bank’s strange history four years ago, in a series of articles for the online magazine Slate (back when it was owned by Microsoft). Now expanded into book form in “The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank,” his journey is a romp about the predictably unpredictable consequences whenever somebody tries to systematize human potential.

In his original online articles, Plotz asked for e-mails from the bank’s former donors and recipients. He got several responses. Between these correspondences and dogged investigative work into the bank’s disappeared archives, Plotz introduced two of the bank’s offspring to their biological fathers. In the book, he alternates these stories with the main narrative of the Repository’s life and death.

In one of these subplots, a “genius” sperm donor turns out to have been a good-for-nothing wastrel of the highest order (to preserve his identity, the author only quotes him as having had “X children by Y women”). There’s going to be a TV sitcom later this year about a similar premise (“Misconceptions” on the WB, starring Jane Leeves of “Frasier” fame as a sperm-bank teen’s mom). It’s hard to imagine the show being as entertaining as the true-life version in the book.

Like most attempts to re-engineer the human race, the Nobel sperm bank failed. As a business, it also failed. But it brought public attention to sperm donation. As a result, thousands of people who couldn’t otherwise conceive have had their parental dreams come true — people of all types and races.