Telling the Full Story of 'The Genius Factory'
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
For nearly three years, journalist David Plotz worked as a semen detective. That's S-E-M-E-N. He tracked down the donors and offspring of a notorious California sperm bank, a bank that claimed to offer the genes of society's smartest men. Plotz chronicles his investigations in a new book, the "Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank." David Plotz joins me in the studio.
DAVID PLOTZ (Author, "Genius Factory"): Thank you.
LUDDEN: I want to ask you, `Did this work? Did it produce geniuses?' But first, I need you to take me back a bit and tell me about the man who began this whole project, an optometrist named Robert Graham.
PLOTZ: Robert Graham had made a fortune in the '50s, '60s and '70s by inventing shatterproof plastic eyeglasses, and he'd acquired this nest egg of a hundred million dollars, but along the way he became obsessed with the idea that the human race was in genetic decline.
LUDDEN: And he created--he called this the Repository for Germinal Choice. Is that right?
PLOTZ: That's right. It had the name with the thud of sort of third-rate science fiction, but the idea was to collect the seed of the world's best men and distribute it to the world's smart women, and thus kind of create a cadre of new brilliant scientists and leaders who would stave off the dumb hordes who were threatening to take over the world.
LUDDEN: So this bank opened in 1980. It ended up closing in 1999. Then you enter the picture. You decide you want to follow up what happened, and you realize you can't find these people. It's all anonymous, so you put out a story on Slate online. Then what happens?
PLOTZ: I put out a story on Slate in early 2001 essentially telling the bare-bones history of the bank--what was known--and inviting anyone who had been involved in it as a donor or a child or a mother or an employee to contact me if they wanted to tell their story. And very quickly, people started to e-mail me and call me and say, `Hey, I was donor this, donor'...
LUDDEN: They went by colors.
PLOTZ: They went by colors, so, `I was Donor Light Blue, and--or I hear from a child who would say, you know, `My mother used Donor Coral back in 1985 and I would love to find my father, and I wonder if you can help me.'
LUDDEN: Tell me about one of the mothers you heard from. You talk about a woman named Mary who had a son from one of the donors; his name was Tom.
PLOTZ: This is a family that lives outside of Kansas City, and Tom was a 15-year-old boy at the time I first heard about him, and he had been talking to his friends about how he was going to go to pro wrestling school. And his mother overheard him saying this, and she took him aside at the next opportunity and told him, `Tom, you cannot go to pro wrestling school. You are better than that. Your genes say you're better than that.' And Tom's like, `Well, what do you mean, Mom? What are you talking about?' And she said, you know, `Have you heard of this sperm bank, the Repository for Germinal Choice, which has Nobel Prize sperm donors?' And Tom's like, `No.' She said, `Well, you're from that bank, and you can be better than that, Tom, and--because you have those genes in you, and so I want you to think about that.' And so this Tom--he's a regular kid; he likes hip-hop, smoked a lot of pot and he's a good student, but he was sort of a slacker, a good student. All of a sudden he thought, you know, `Wait a minute. I have a Nobel Prize-winning father? What's going on here?' And his life turned upside down all of a sudden. He became obsessed with finding out who this guy was.
LUDDEN: He actually decided at one point it might be Jonas Salk.
PLOTZ: That's right. He sort of decided that Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, could be his father. So Tom contacted me. He saw my stories and he sent me an e-mail and called me and said, `I want you to help me find my Nobel Prize-winning father.' And so he and I set out on a search for the next two years for his genetic father, who we discovered had been Donor Coral, and eventually we discovered Donor Coral was a doctor living in south Florida. We call him Jeremy, and Jeremy had a very dubious history. He certainly wasn't a Nobel Prize winner, and he had a bit of a checkered past. And Tom--but he was very excited to meet Tom. I contacted Jeremy and Jeremy wanted to meet Tom, and Tom really wanted to meet Jeremy.
LUDDEN: So you, Tom, Tom's new wife and their baby son arrive in Florida at the door of Donor Coral, Jeremy.
PLOTZ: We arrive at his house, and Jeremy opened the door and he was very cute--kind of got a Dennis Quaid-y, raffish thing going on, and very charming and welcoming. He gave Tom a big hug, and brought us into his house, and it was the most squalid place I'd ever seen. There was trash everywhere. It stank. There was only one single lightbulb in the whole space, and it was the most awkward meeting, because here Tom was. He'd begun with this belief that Jonas Salk was his father--or certainly a Nobel Prize winner and he'd come all this way and, you know, spent three years searching to discover that his father was a guy who lived worse than Tom himself did, who couldn't keep his own life together. And it was kind of a crushing blow.
LUDDEN: So what effect did the meeting have on each of these two men, father and son?
PLOTZ: I think Tom was incredibly glad to know who he was, but when he came back, he sort of stopped thinking genetically, and when he came back home, his relationship with his own father had been really rotten for years, and they started to make up. And they started to become very close.
LUDDEN: And the meeting for Jeremy?
PLOTZ: For Jeremy I don't think it meant very much. Jeremy was glad to do it. He has a small interest in Tom, and tries to pay attention to him. But it hasn't changed his life, and he and Tom haven't seen each other since then.
LUDDEN: So Jeremy was no Nobel Prize winner. In fact, you find out there were no Nobel babies.
PLOTZ: That's right.
LUDDEN: What went wrong here?
PLOTZ: Well, the Nobel Prize sperm bank began with Nobel Prize-winning donors; they had three of them to begin with. But when the publicity about the bank broke in 1980 and it was mostly bad publicity, you know, comparing this to some kind of Nazi project, all the Nobelists said, `Wait a minute. I don't want to be associated with this; I'm getting out of here.' And so Robert Graham found himself in 1980 with a sperm bank that was known as the Nobel Prize sperm bank but had no Nobel Prize donors and had no Nobel Prize sperm left. And none of the Nobel Prize sperm had gotten anyone pregnant. And so Graham went out and looked for guys who were sort of renaissance men, who could ski all day and then make love all night and do quadratic equations in the meantime. So he sent out his recruiters to universities to find professors who met those criteria and found some successful businessmen to be donors. But no Nobel Prize winners.
LUDDEN: What about the offspring? Was it a genius factory?
PLOTZ: It was not a genius factory. I ended up being in touch with about 30 of the kids out of 215 total. And in general, the kids are above-average students, but there's a wide range. There are some who are below; there are some who have some serious health problems. I think the important question to ask about the Nobel Prize sperm bank is what kind of woman goes to a Nobel Prize sperm bank, and the kind of woman who goes there is bound and determined to have an accomplished child. I think they would have had accomplished children whether they'd gone to the Nobel Prize sperm bank or whether they'd gone to Joe's discount sperm warehouse. It didn't make a difference.
LUDDEN: Robert Graham died in 1997. His sperm bank was shut down two years later. Do you think it left a legacy, though?
PLOTZ: It left a huge legacy. When Robert Graham came along and offered the Godiva of sperm, it changed the way women thought about this process of infertility, and they stopped being patients and they started being consumers, and I think that's the greatest change that Robert Graham brought to America.
LUDDEN: David Plotz is deputy editor of the online magazine Slate, and he's a regular contributor to NPR's "Day to Day."
Thanks so much.
PLOTZ: Thank you.
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LUDDEN: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.