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Whatever Happened to the Genius Sperm Bank?


By Paul Olding / BBC

He was a millionaire who dreamed of saving humanity using the sperm of geniuses. But what became of Robert Klark Graham's master plan?

In the late 1970s, in a underground bunker on his ranch near San Diego, American millionaire Robert Klark Graham set up the world's most controversial sperm bank known as the Repository for Germinal Choice.

Already famous as the inventor of the shatterproof spectacle lens, 70-year-old Graham was set to turn his hand to a much more infamous career.

He believed that "retrograde humans" were breeding unchecked. He wanted to reverse this trend by bringing thousands of geniuses into the world, fathered by the most brilliant minds. Single-handedly he dreamed of saving humanity using the sperm of clever men.

Controversial

Graham wanted to recruit the choicest sperm he could find. He initially convinced three Nobel Laureates to donate, including the notorious racist William Shockley. But elderly sperm - albeit eminent - was not good for freezing, so he decided to cast the net wider.

While at a dinner party botany professor Jim Bidlack was asked by Graham if he would be willing to provide him with a specimen that very evening.

"We were getting close to the end of the evening, we had a conversation and somewhere during that conversation he said 'would you be willing to provide us with a specimen, do you think you are up to it?'," says Mr Bidlack.

He was and did.

The tycoon's controversial project was exposed to the world by LA Times journalist Edwin Chen. He stumbled across the story while interviewing a researcher at a zoo, contacted Graham and was invited over for an interview.

"There were a lot of questions, many of them pointed at this notion of a master race and that this is something that shouldn't be done, but he was very boastful," says Chen.

Slammed in the press and accused of being a eugenicist and Nazi, Graham went on the defensive. He said while the principles of what he was doing might not be popular, they were sound. He insisted he was just trying to take advantage of the possibilities of genetics. The women came flocking.


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Codename

"I had a sperm bank locally," says Lisa Zerr, from Colorado. "But it had students that were occasional drug users, they had multiple partners and tattoos and were donating for extra beer money. I just didn't feel comfortable with the quality of donors from that bank.

"At Graham's bank they weren't just accepting men that came in to apply, they were actually going out and looking for men that were healthy, smart and good looking. Genius or not, it was good people I was looking for. I think that knowing they were geniuses was sort of an added bonus."

Andrea Gronwall from California says she was shocked about how easy it was to contact Graham's sperm bank. "I opened the phone book and my god, the Repository for Germinal Choice was in the yellow pages," she says.

But Graham was offering more than genius sperm, he was offering "healthy and intelligent" women freedom of choice, where couples could choose the donor whose characteristics they prefer. It was a bold move, not previously heard of in the world of sperm banking.

Graham provided couples with a catalogue listing the attributes of codenamed donors. The genius sperm was then couriered for home insemination, often aided by the husbands, a speculum and a torch.

"Instead of merely being patients, women got a chance to be shoppers, they got a chance to make this choice themselves," says biographer David Plotz. "It was catalogue shopping, it was a revelation to the women who came to the repository."

But running a sperm bank was hard work. "There were so many recipients wanting sperm and there was so little sperm, never enough sperm," says former staff member Julianna McKillop.

Graham took it upon himself to recruit donors and it was on one such expedition in February 1997, that the 90-year-old Graham died. While attending a science conference in Seattle he slipped in his hotel bathtub, was knocked unconscious and drowned. Unfunded, his repository closed two years later.

Poster boy

Graham's dream may have died, but his legacy lives on. He changed the face of modern sperm banking, not just with the innovation of the donor catalogue, but also the previously unheard of concept where clients could actively choose donors.

Over the years, the bank was ultimately responsible for the birth of 217 children. Of the few repository children that have come forward, Doron Blake, 23, was the bank's second-born child and Graham's poster boy.

"I turned out very well, my IQ was off the charts and basically I was everything Robert Graham wanted," he says.

"Throughout my life I've felt I've not had to work as hard for the level of achievement that I've reached as most of my peers did.

"I don't usually broadcast the fact that I came from a sperm bank because I don't think it's that interesting. People find out when it comes up."

But Doron is not convinced by Graham's grand plan for creating more intelligent people.

"As far as I'm concerned it doesn't matter how a child is made in terms of the genes and chromosomes of it, it's how the child was raised and nurtured that really matters."

Anonymous

Seventeen-year-old ballerina Courtney Ramm, agrees. Also a product of the sperm bank, she says she finds most things easy.

"In school I think I was pretty much in the top. I never found anything too challenging as a child. Everything pretty much came easy for me. But I think intelligence is not only based on your genes, I think it's also about the environment you're brought up in."

But most of the sperm bank children still remain anonymous, so no one can test to see whether Graham's experiment to breed intelligent kids using clever sperm really did work or not.

 

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