Robert K. Graham believed that modern welfare programs encouraged imbeciles to reproduce. As a result, he complained, “retrograde humans” were overtaking the intelligent minority, causing the evolutionary regression of mankind and increasing the likelihood of global communism. So in February 1980, the 73-year-old Graham, who had made a $70-million fortune by inventing shatter-resistant eyeglass lenses, announced the establishment of the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank stocked by Nobel Prize winners and other outstanding men. He intended to save America from genetic catastrophe. Graham was storing the genius sperm in an underground bunker on his Escondido estate and already had collected seed from three Nobel laureates, including legendary (and notorious) physicist William Shockley. He was offering the sperm to women who belonged to Mensa, the high IQ society. Journalists quickly dubbed the repository “the Nobel Prize sperm bank"—a nickname that stuck. Here, author David Plotz reveals the man with the unorthodox plan.
Other people could have conceived the idea of a Nobel sperm bank, but no one except Robert Graham could have made it a reality. Graham had the right-wing politics of a self-made millionaire, the relentless inquisitiveness of an inventor and the moxie of a salesman. Together, these attributes made him rich enough to fund it, confident his sperm bank was the right idea, 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 and libertinism.
In 1980, California culture was a clash between free-thinking futurism (Jerry Brown, Gov. Moonbeam, was in the middle of his second term) and hard-right political conservatism (former Gov. Ronald Reagan had swept the New Hampshire presidential primary just three days before Graham went public with his plan). In Graham—and perhaps only in Graham—these ideologies 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, Graham tried to start a country. He instructed an employee at his firm, Armorlite, to locate an island that Graham could buy and flag as a sovereign, or at least semi-sovereign, nation. Real estate agents located four or five promising candidates, mostly small islands in the Atlantic that Britain might surrender for the right price. Graham dreamed of turning his island into an elite research colony. He would invite the world’s best practical scientists to the island and supply them with lavish living conditions and fancy labs. Grahamland would support itself: When scientists produced something valuable, they and the colony would share the royalties. Graham was convinced that scientists would flock to his island. He was sure they wanted what he wanted: an escape from the morons who increasingly dominated the rest of the world.
Grahamland didn’t progress beyond the planning stages. Graham got distracted and never managed to buy the island. But the idea of a private nation was the essence of Robert Graham: the entrepreneurial vigor, the cockamamie grandeur, the unshakable faith in practical science, the contempt for the lazy masses and the infatuation with finding—and with claiming—the world’s best men.
Graham was born on June 9, 1906, in Harbor Springs, Mich. his home-town was the summer playground for Midwestern royalty. Harbor Springs sat on a gorgeous inlet of Lake Michigan, and the rich flocked there for the clean air and beautiful harbor. The Harbor Springs summer census was a Who’s Who of American business, from the Gambles of Procter & Gamble to the Reynoldses of aluminum fame.
Graham’s father was the town dentist. The Grahams were local gentry, acknowledged by the summer visitors but not of them. Growing up in the resort town instilled in Graham a lifelong obsession with the rich and the great. In summer, Graham caddied at Harbor Springs’ two private golf courses to spend time around powerful men. The adulation he would perfect as a genius sperm banker was learned on the golf course. Graham would later write about caddying, “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.”
Harbor Springs also is where young Graham learned his first unfortunate lessons about race. Harbor Springs was as prejudiced as you’d expect of Michigan in the ‘20s. Henry Ford was at the height of his influence and his anti-Semitism. Jews and blacks were excluded from Harbor Springs’ clubs—not that there were many around. Graham developed a discomfort with nonwhites that he would never quite lose.
By the time he graduated from Harbor Springs High School in 1924, Graham had acquired a bantam charm. His chest was broad from swimming, legs strong from running. He had jug ears, bushy eyebrows and a vast chin—aggressive features that combined in a fortunate way. He wore his thick, dark hair slicked back in the fashion of the day. His classmates voted him the best-looking boy in the graduating class. They liked him too. The Harbor Springs High School yearbook declared of him: “Here good sense and good nature are never separated.”
At 18, Graham headed off to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, intent on becoming the next Enrico Caruso. But after eight years of studying music, he failed to make it as a singer. He abjectly returned home.
Graham was blessed with a ruthlessly clear-eyed view of himself: "[I] have no great gifts, but no great weaknesses, either.” He knew he was disciplined. He solved problems quickly, and his hands were agile. Graham settled on a second career: optometry. It was an oddly inspired choice. Though deeply unglamorous, optometry was a profession of gadgets—mediocre ones. Graham relished the challenge of trying to improve them. He earned an optical degree from Ohio State and landed a coveted job at Bausch & Lomb.
When World War II ended, Graham was a salesman for the optical giant Univis. His heart wasn’t in it, so he threw himself at the profession’s No. 1 problem: Eyeglass lenses were still made of fragile, dangerous glass, injuring thousands every year when they shattered. Graham believed he could manufacture a plastic lens that was stronger than glass and just as scratch-resistant.
In 1947, Graham quit Univis and poured all his money into his new company, Armorlite. He moved to Southern California, the red-hot center of the postwar industrial economy, and after repeated failure, developed plastic lenses that worked. Armorlite’s products revolutionized the optical business in the 1950s, and the company boomed. Graham employed 500 employees at a Pasadena factory. He was a hero in his small corner of American business. The National Eye Research Foundation dubbed him “The Man Who Made It Safe to Wear Glasses.” When 3M bought Armorlite in 1978 for $70 million, Graham pocketed almost all of it.
But Graham was dissatisfied. His personal life was messy. He had divorced his first wife after she bore him three kids, then played the field with relish. He remarried, unhappily, to a woman who bore two children before dying of a pill overdose. He married for the third time in 1960. Marta Ve Everton, an ophthalmologist 21 years his junior, was whip-smart, gracious and altruistic. She was the love of Graham’s life, and bore him two more kids.
Graham liked the idea of family in theory, but had trouble with it in practice. Several of his sons had problems, including one who apparently killed himself and another who had health difficulties and died young. Graham’s ambivalent relationship with his brood helped lead him to the obsession that would define the rest of his life. All around him, he glumly observed the triumph of dullards over brains. Graham sold contact lenses to pro football players, and he was repulsed by how women flung themselves at them. He often scorned his own employees, whom he thought cared only about getting additional benefits. These indistinct resentments clarified themselves in Graham’s mind. In the late ‘50s, he became fixated on the idea that the world needed more intelligent people because idiots were multiplying too quickly.
It was not surprising that Graham grew fascinated with genetic degradation when he did. The late ‘50s marked the zenith of men such as Graham. In the post-Sputnik scientific-industrial complex, such technical businessmen were demigods. Graham felt he had the right, even the obligation, to advance his eugenics ideas. His dread of uncontrolled genetics also reflected his fear of looming societal change. The civil rights and women’s movements were about to overthrow the white male order. Graham began worrying about the intellectual decline of Americans at the very instant Americans decided they didn’t want to listen to men like him.
Even though people were living longer and healthier lives than at any point in history, he believed civilization was ruining us. Our weaker specimens, who would have died off in earlier times, were surviving to breed. Intelligence was 50% to 90% inherited, Graham thought. Therefore, mankind was getting stupider as these lesser men multiplied. Graham believed that the spread of half-wits explained the rise of communism.
By the 1960s, Graham had embraced an ideal he felt would reverse the decline: “germinal repositories,” or, as they would come to be known, sperm banks. Women would be artificially inseminated with sperm collected from the world’s smartest men. Graham wrote: “Consider what it would mean to scientific progress if another 20 or more children of Lord Rutherford or Louis Pasteur could have been brought into the world.”
Graham came a generation late to the eugenics craze that had gripped the U.S. and Britain from the late 19th century until the 1930s. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, invented eugenics in Victorian England. His 1869 book “Hereditary Genius” counted and classified Britain’s most accomplished men and showed they were very often related to each other. Successful fathers had successful sons. This, Galton claimed, proved that God-given abilities were passed from one generation to the next.
Galton named his new science eugenics, an invented word based on the Greek for “well-born.” Galton’s acolytes used eugenics to justify social stratification: If the rich are rich because they are endowed with natural abilities, then the poor must be poor because they are endowed with natural deficiencies.
The British talked plenty about eugenics, but it was can-do Americans who converted Galton’s theory into practice. American eugenicists turned it into a wildly successful national crusade to save the American “germ plasm” and protect it from the blacks and dark-skinned immigrants they felt were multiplying so rapidly. In 1910, Charles Davenport opened the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., funded by members of the Rockefeller, Carnegie and Harriman families. Davenport and his assistants scoured America in search of the “unfit,” including albinos, the Amish, epileptics, mental patients and criminals. University presidents, congressmen and good society everywhere embraced the creed. By the late 1920s, 20,000 college students a year were taking eugenics courses.
Eugenics assumed the trappings of a religion: Eugenicists proposed a Decalogue of Science—a revised, eugenic Ten Commandments. Starting at the turn of the 20th century, eugenicists battled to sterilize practically everyone they deemed weak in order to cleanse the gene pool—no matter that most of the supposed ailments were not genetic in origin. By 1917, 15 states had legalized eugenic sterilization. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court gave sterilization its seal of approval, and a majority of states mandated sterilization of the unfit in the 1930s. By the end of the decade, more than 35,000 Americans had been forced under the knife. Another 25,000 were sterilized before the practice finally ended in the 1960s.
German eugenicists were particularly captivated by American practices. They published textbooks based on American ideas, and Adolf Hitler read them and wrote fan letters to leading American eugenicists. The “science” of American eugenics helped Hitler medicalize and sanitize his crimes. He imposed draconian eugenics laws and sterilized 225,000 Germans during his first three years in power. When the war began, sterilization degenerated into “mercy killing"—the outright murder of tens of thousands of asylum residents. The eugenic murders were prelude to, and inspiration for, the Holocaust. Nazi enthusiasm for eugenics flourished even in the death camps, as Josef Mengele and others conducted barbaric experiments on twins and other unfortunates in the name of gene science. The Great Depression had fostered skepticism of eugenics in the U.S. Hitler’s crimes sealed the case against it.
When Graham embraced the idea of the genius sperm bank in the ‘60s, he was hearkening back to a different, more innocuous brand of eugenics. While negative eugenics of the Nazis and their American models used the power of the state to sterilize, so-called positive eugenics took a milder approach. Rather than reducing the number of unfit through sterilization, the positive eugenicists simply sought to increase the number of outstanding people. Though positive and negative eugenics had the same intellectual origins and same innate racism, positive eugenics eschewed the violence and brutality of the sterilizers. The catchiest idea in positive eugenics was the genius factory: turning excellent men into reproductive machines. In the 1880s, as eugenics took hold in Europe, Count Georges Vacher de Lapouge proposed that “a very small number of males of absolute perfection” be used to father all children. It was enough to make eugenicists giddy: Why not a whole nation of Pasteurs or Benjamin Franklins? Half a century later, the idea was picked up by a brilliant young geneticist named Hermann Muller. As a young researcher at the University of Texas in the 1920s, Muller proved that X-rays caused genetic mutations in fruit flies, a discovery that would win him the 1946 Nobel Prize in medicine. Muller was enthralled by the idea of the genius sperm bank, and began pushing for one in the early 1930s, before the technology for freezing sperm had even been invented. In a few generations, Muller claimed, the world could multiply a hundredfold the number of great men and women.
In the early 1960s, Graham and Muller met and joined forces. Muller was a socialist and Graham was a conservative Republican, but Muller recognized that the millionaire was a valuable ally. He had been talking about a genius sperm bank for a generation. In Graham, he found the man who could make it happen.
On June 5, 1963, Graham and Muller met at the Pasadena Huntington-Sheraton Hotel and vowed to establish a sperm bank for “outstanding individuals,” to be funded by Graham. They were taken very seriously. They proposed storing the sperm at Caltech, an idea the school contemplated without ridicule. But Muller died in 1967, and Graham put the project on hold. By 1976, though, after he had withdrawn from day-to-day responsibility for Armorlite, Graham was ready. He had plenty of room for the bank, and now that he wasn’t running Armorlite, plenty of time. It was the perfect moment—and California was the perfect place—for him to start.
It’s no accident that the three most important sperm banks in the world—Graham’s Repository for Germinal Choice, the California Cryobank and the Sperm Bank of California—all began in the late ‘70s. The state’s progressivism and self-improvement ethos made it ideal soil for sperm banks: Customers, libertarian in their personal behavior, were willing to try anything. And Escondido was just the right town for Graham’s brew of futurism and conservatism. With its hills bulldozed into housing developments and its desert valleys irrigated into golf courses, Escondido had the feel of an engineered Eden, a naturally perfect place that man still thought he could improve.
Graham fired off letters to all the Nobel science laureates he could find in California. Their genes were precious, he told them. Could they share their glorious genetic heritage with desperate infertile couples?
When a Nobelist responded with even the slightest interest, Graham followed up to schedule a collection. Graham was respectful toward the donors. They were always “Doctor” to him. He read up on them in advance, and would ask them polite, informed questions about their work. In the late ‘70s, Graham managed to collect from three Nobelists, including William Shockley. In 1979, he told the Mensa Society newsletter about the bank, and invited women who were Mensa members to apply. They had to be married to infertile men: The conservative Graham refused to give the seed to unmarried women or lesbian couples.
Graham thought he was about to change the world. The Los Angeles Times discovered the bank and wrote an article about it. Then disaster struck in the person of Shockley.
By admitting to The Times that he had donated, Shockley lent some credibility to Graham’s idea and proved that while Graham might be a kook, he wasn’t a fraud. There really was Nobel sperm in those tanks. Later Graham would say he was “eternally indebted” to Shockley. “He was the one person who saved me from looking like the country’s champion liar.” But in saving Graham, Shockley disgraced him.
That’s because Shockley, though a Nobel laureate, the inventor of the transistor and one of the world’s greatest scientists, was toxic. After a lifetime of scientific discovery, Shockley had abandoned physics in the late 1960s to devote himself to a cause he called “dysgenics.” At its root, dysgenics was the idea that black Americans weren’t as intelligent as white Americans and needed to have fewer children. Blacks, Shockley said, were “genetically enslaved” to their poor DNA, condemned to lives of misery, poverty and crime.
When the news media connected Shockley, his racist pronouncements and the Nobel sperm bank, it turned the repository from a curiosity into a menace, and then into a joke. On his own, Graham seemed a little odd, if well-meaning. Affiliated with Shockley, he seemed sinister. San Francisco columnist Herb Caen said Shockley’s involvement was “proof that masturbation makes you crazy.” “Saturday Night Live” ridiculed Shockley and the bank in a skit titled “Dr. Shockley’s House of Sperm,” starring Rodney Dangerfield.
The mocking publicity took a toll on Graham and his sperm bank. Protesters picketed Graham’s estate. He hired round-the-clock Pinkertons to guard his precious vials. Baffled by the rage, Graham retreated from the press and avoided interviews for two years.
Shockley stopped donating sperm after the storm of publicity. Graham’s other two Nobelists also quit. So by late 1980, Graham found himself presiding over a Nobel Prize sperm bank that had no Nobel Prize donors, no Nobel Prize sperm left in storage (it had all been shipped out to clients) and no Nobel Prize babies. The bank’s three Nobel donors never fathered a single baby. Even so, every day more applications from desperate women arrived at Graham’s office. He had customers, but needed some new seed to give them.
Graham was nothing if not a canny businessman. He realized that his customers didn’t necessarily share his enthusiasm for brainiacs. Sure, applicants sometimes asked how smart a donor was. But they usually asked how good-looking he was. And they always asked how tall he was. Graham realized that he could take advantage of the Nobel drought to shed what he called the bank’s “little bald professor” reputation. Graham recruited donors who were younger, taller and better-looking than his laureates. “Those Nobelists,” he would say scornfully, “they could never win a basketball game.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Graham and a series of assistants scoured Who’s Who and haunted college campuses to find the renaissance men that his customers craved. The roster of donors never included another Nobelist, but it did have an Olympic gold medalist, successful scientists and computer whizzes, several hotshot businessmen and various young prodigies. (All of them were white; Graham never quite overcame his childhood prejudices.) The repository’s first baby was born in 1982. Her parents sold the exclusive to the National Enquirer.
Far more women applied than the bank could supply with sperm. By the ‘90s, the waiting list for customers reached 18 months, and the bank was fathering a dozen kids a year. Reporters remained enthralled with the Nobel sperm bank. They clamored to know whether Graham’s dream had come true. Were the kids special? Were they “super” children?
Graham didn’t know the answer. He had intended to use his repository kids as lab rats, to study them and publish the research. In 1992, he mailed an initial survey to all his parents, asking for information about their children: How well were they doing compared to other kids? Any IQ test results? But almost no one returned the survey. Parents, who had rarely shared Graham’s eugenics bent to start with, cared even less once their babies were born.
Eventually, the repository fathered 215 children before it closed in 1999. Because of the privacy issues, almost nothing was known about these kids. Only a handful of them have ever been publicly identified. But in the course of researching “The Genius Factory,” I tracked down about 30 of them, ranging in age from 7 to 22. My sample is not random: These are families who were willing to talk about their experience.
So are the kids all that Graham fantasized? Several are truly brilliant. A few others have wonderful physical talents—there are two superb dancers, a number of excellent athletes and at least one amazing singer. Of the rest, most are very good if not stellar students. Several kids perform below average in school. Almost all are in excellent health, but one boy is autistic and one girl has a debilitating muscle disease. They are, in short, above average as a group, but the range is very wide.
Is this a tribute to Robert Graham and his vision? I doubt it. These are fortunate children: They come from prosperous homes—middle class and up—and they have exceptionally attentive mothers. Most children would thrive in such surroundings. Yes, the smartest of them had smart donors, but they also have smart mothers, and they have been raised in intellectually challenging environments. Measuring the contribution of the donor is impossible.
Robert Graham’s crusade never flagged. In his 80s, he still supervised the sperm bank, sponsored a scientific conference and traveled across the country to recruit donors. In February 1997, the 90-year-old Graham traveled to Seattle for the annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. While at the meeting, Graham died after falling in the hotel bathtub.
The bank couldn’t survive his death. It had been bleeding cash—more than $100,000 in losses a year. Graham’s children, who never liked the sperm bank, had no interest in continuing it. Nor did his widow, Marta. In early 1999, the board decided to shut the repository.
It had served its purpose. When Graham started the repository, other banks revealed practically no information about their donors: Clients were expected to take what they were given. Graham’s bank revolutionized the sperm business. He turned infertile patients into customers. He gave them the widest choice and the best men he could find. Other sperm banks followed his lead. Today all major sperm banks are, in effect, eugenic sperm banks: They seek the tallest, smartest, best-looking donors they can find, because that’s what their customers demand. By the time Graham died, the Repository for Germinal Choice was no longer necessary. Other sperm banks had taken Graham’s best ideas and done them better, offering better donors and more of them. And they did it without Graham’s peculiar theories.
At the end, the donors were offered the chance to reclaim their frozen sperm. None took up the offer. The repository’s records—just a bunch of file folders—were entrusted to a former staffer. One morning in the late spring of 1999, a medical waste company arrived at the bank office. The frozen vials of sperm once so precious that they were double locked and shielded by lead, that reporters begged for a glance at them, that women traveled across the globe to get their hands on them, were dumped unceremoniously in red bio-waste bags and driven off to the incinerator. The dream that began in ice ended in fire.
This article is adapted from “The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank,” by David Plotz, to be published this month by Random House. Copyright 2005, by the author.