Not just a history of the sperm bank founded in 1980 by Robert Graham, but a report of the author’s encounters with the bank’s employees, its donors, its donorees—and the children that resulted.
When Plotz began writing about the so-called Nobel Prize sperm bank for Slate, where he’s a deputy editor, he asked that anyone involved with the experiment contact him. The result was a series of e-mails, which, in turn, led to the series of articles that form the basis of this, his first book. Plotz provides a profile of Graham, a millionaire optometrist with a mission to halt the genetic decay that he believed was threatening the human species, his solution being to found the Repository for Germinal Choice, which he hoped to stock with the sperm of Nobel Prize winners. The involvement of physicist William Shockley, a Nobelist with alarming racist views, turned the bank “from a curiosity into a menace and then into a joke,” and its two Nobel donors quit. Graham then looked for men of accomplishment who were younger, taller, more athletic and better looking than Nobel laureates to fill the orders from women eager to bear children with “superior” genes. In 1999, two years after Graham’s death, the bank closed, having produced only 215 children. Of those, Plotz made contact with 30, in person, by phone, or by e-mail. His stories about them are revealing, sad and comic. From his small and admittedly nonrandom sample, he concludes that while they aren’t geniuses, these people do tend to have attentive mothers with high expectations who push them to excel. Nurture, it would seem, trumps nature. Still, Graham’s sperm bank did, for the first time, allow women opting for artificial insemination to make informed choices from catalogues of well-described donors, a practice now standard in the thriving sperm bank business. As a bonus, Plotz offers an entertaining firsthand account of what’s involved in becoming a present-day donor.
Fresh, funny, with deft profiles of singular individuals.