Civil Liberties

The Man Who Marketed Sperm

From eugenicist to entrepreneur.


I'm staring at a six-foot, 190-pound, Irish/Italian research scientist who lists his interests as "Golf/Roasting Coffee." If I want him, he's mine–or at least his sperm is, for the piddling price of $300 plus shipping. At the Fairfax Cryobank's Web site, they're selling genetic selection, and the stock is uniformly tall, accomplished, and available.

Sperm banks didn't always come complete with "shopping cart" and "checkout" icons, but the formerly shamefaced search for sperm has become a consumer's playground. That's a transformation largely sparked by the Repository for Germinal Choice, more commonly known as the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. The Genius Factory (Random House), David Plotz's fascinating history of the institution, traces donors, mothers, and children whose lives were touched–or generated–by a bizarre experiment in genetics. Along the way, Plotz relates the story of a social conservative who inadvertently launched a revolution in sperm shopping.

Millionaire optometrist Robert Graham wanted to build a new social order, and he wanted to start by asking a few smart men to masturbate for him. From the 1960s onward, Graham became increasingly convinced that society was doomed unless intelligent people started producing intelligent children. His 1970 call to arms, The Future of Man, frets that evolution is spiraling backward, half of humanity is regrettably "dull," and the world's greatest minds are dropping out of the genetic marathon. "The childlessness of an Isaac Newton or a George Washington, the extinction of the Lincoln Family, the spinsterhood of the brightest girl in the class," he mourned, "are great biological tragedies." At his most perversely romantic, he spoke of breeding a "secular savior."

Graham believed the human race was headed for genetic meltdown, and in the science-trumps-all spirit of mid-century, he found his solution in a modern innovation–frozen sperm. In 1980 Graham opened the Repository for Germinal Choice and began asking smart men to make personal contributions.

Back in the 1930s, a woman in search of seed had to turn to her doctor, who was likely to discourage questions about whatever semen he scrounged up. Before the advent of frozen sperm, the whole awkward affair took place off the cuff in the clinic. Physicians would snag a proximate donor ("often the closest medical student at hand," Plotz explains), hand over his output, and instruct couples to keep the dirty secret under wraps. Women weren't consumers; they were receptacles.

Conditions improved as technology developed and social mores loosened, but a would-be mom's choices remained limited into the '80s. Graham entered this world not as an activist but as a businessman. To sell prize-winning DNA to women (and stave off genetic meltdown), he couldn't just offer sperm. He had to market it. He handed mothers-to-be, as Plotz puts it, the "godiva of sperm, prime cuts of American man," and packaged donors like teen idols. The bank compiled detailed catalogs of donor descriptions ("rosy cheeked, beautiful teeth"), with handwritten comments in the margins ("Almost a superman!").

Suddenly, beggars could be choosers. An impotent husband was an excuse to embark on the world's weirdest shopping trip.

Shop women did, and their taste in men wasn't always the same as Graham's. "Graham's Nobel efforts had been quixotic," writes Plotz, because "he was trying to sell a product –pure intelligence–that most Americans didn't really want." Sperm banks have evolved to serve parents who want well-rounded kids, not miniature eggheads. The Fairfax Cryobank's site is a gallery of Renaissance men; most are (or claim to be) tall, athletic, social, and smart, all within the comfortable bounds of normality.

In 1997, at age 91, Graham literally died for the sake of his sperm: On a semen-collecting trip, he fell in a hotel bathtub and drowned. His repository closed soon afterward, but he left behind an industry transformed. Today's bigger banks offer baby pictures, audio interviews, donor essays, donor search engines, and same-day shipping.

Graham wanted to launch a genetic revolution from above, but parents just wanted the freedom to choose. "Mother after mother said the same thing to me: she had picked the repository because it was the only place that let her select what she wanted," Plotz writes. Catalogues and charisma–not apocalyptic alarmism–sent the industry mainstream.

Twenty-five years after Graham tried to save the world with Nobel sperm, his successors run an industry that values individual choice over a single vision of salvation. That's not the legacy he was after, but it's one worth celebrating.