Robert Klark Graham made millions with shatterproof lenses for eyeglasses and contact lenses. But he didn’t stop there.
Graham, born on this day in 1906, went on to found the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank that was supposed to produce "super-kids" from the sperm of (white) high achievers, like Nobel Prize winners. This unprecedented attempt at controlling reproduction was quickly shunned by the broader public, but it helped to change the business of sperm donation in ways that continue to raise questions.
The Repository was opened in 1979 in Escondido, California, according to Lawrence Van Gelder for The New York Times. Among Graham’s donors were three Nobel laureates. In fact, “Nobel Prize sperm bank” was the nickname that the initiative quickly gained in the press, according to David Plotz, writing in Slate. Ironic, considering that Graham himself walked away with a 1991 Ig Nobel for the repository.
After Graham tried to sell the press on his idea in 1980, Plotz writes, two of the laureates quickly backed out. Many said—with reason—that Graham’s theories about to create "ideal" children seemed a lot like the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century that eventually shaped Nazism. All his donors were white and had to be married heterosexuals, among other criteria, and the bank would only supply sperm to women who were the same. In theory, Graham said, the bank would produce children that were all white, intelligent, neurotypical and physically conforming to one ideal aesthetic.
William B. Shockley, the inventor of the transistor and recipient of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics, was the only one to publically admit to being in the Repository, although Plotz writes that he never donated again. Shockley’s longstanding reputation for racism and espousing evolutionary pseudo-theories that strayed far outside his area of expertise helped to discredit the bank.
Over time, Graham downgraded his promises from Nobel-winning sperm, wrote Tom Gorman for the Los Angeles Times in 1992, a decade after the first Repository baby was born. “No women ever chose a Nobel laureate's sperm—the men were probably too old anyway, Graham rationalized later—and today there is no Nobel sperm in the bank,” he wrote.
Although Graham’s approach was quickly discredited, writes Plotz in a different article for The Guardian, some would-be parents still sought out Graham and his vials of so-called “genius sperm.” 218 children in all were born of sperm from the bank.
But the bank also had a wider influence on the fertility business itself, Plotz writes. Even for people who would find the ideals espoused by someone like Shockley morally repugnant, the prospect of having some control over the process of choosing a genetic parent for their child appealed to parents, he writes. Before Graham’s sperm bank, receiving donor sperm was an anonymous experience that was entirely controlled by a physician. Parents knew little more than the eye color of their donor. Graham offered some parents an opportunity to feel safer about their choice of genetic material.
Today, sperm banks are more like Graham’s approach than the previous one, and they offer significant donor details to prospective parents. The lure of choice is one of the marketing strategies of sperm banks, which are, after all, businesses. But the question of whether sperm banks are engaging in eugenics on some level has never really gone away.
Offering parents the chance to select for everything from health to intelligence means that sperm banks are still trying to make “ideal” children, writes George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. “It’s narrowing humanity at a time when we’re starting to accept many aspects of diversity,” bioethicist Kerry Bowman told Dvorsky. For instance, creativity has a “high association with some of the things banned by sperm banks,” such as dyslexia.