Ask a Eugenicist
Marian Van Court
Interview with Robert Klark Graham
Robert K. Graham (1906–1997) was co-founder and director of The Repository for Germinal Choice, a California-based sperm bank which stored and distributed the sperm of Nobel Prize winners and other men of exceptional ability. He invented and manufactured the plastic used for shatter-proof eye glasses and was author of The Future of Man. The following interview was conducted by Marian Van Court on January 20, 1983 in Austin, Texas and was first published in The Eugenics Bulletin, Winter, 1983.
Approximately how many applications have you received so far?
And how many women have actually begun the program?
Well, we’ve had two births and we have 15 pregnancies, as of this speaking. There are also 45 currently undergoing insemination – those are all in the USA. Although we’ve had many applications from outside the country, they present various importation problems that have to be worked out first.
Are there legal questions this project has raised which never existed before?
Yes, quite a few. In fact, there are major legal expenses involved in setting this up on the present scale, to avoid lawsuits if there’s a faulty child born. Because the chances of a faulty child are just inherent in the situation – sooner or later, there will be some youngster who is not well-endowed, perhaps even a child with Down’s syndrome.
What originally inspired you to create The Repository for Germinal Choice?
Shall I go way back to the beginning?
Early in my life it dawned on me that bright people – at least the desirable citizens, the ones who carry on the real planning and doing in the community – weren’t reproducing themselves. This became apparent to me in the little town in northern Michigan where I grew up. The doctor had only one child, the banker had one child, the leading lumber mill operator had three children, none of whom married. The richest and most famous man in town was childless. So was the only man listed in Who’s Who. My dad was a dentist. These were among his friends, and the people I knew best and regarded most highly. It troubled me they weren’t even reproducing themselves.
Then after college, for ten years I was a salesman calling on doctors. There again, I found that most of them had only one or two children. I accumulated information and observations, and did a lot of reading for ten years. Finally I wrote a book. I asked a friend, Raymond Cattell, if he would review the manuscript, which he did. He was also a friend of Hermann J. Muller, who was as great a geneticist as there was in that day, perhaps still as great as any. Cattell told Muller about the manuscript because in it I had suggested several ways of encouraging bright people to have bigger families, and one of them was similar to Muller’s plan. But Muller had conceived it first, and had thought it through much more thoroughly than I. Muller was willing to go over the manuscript and helped me immensely. In fact, he came to Pasadena where I lived, and we spent most of three days going over it.
Ever since then, until Muller’s death, he and I worked together, first on the manuscript, and then on the establishment of The Repository for Germinal Choice. That was Muller’s name, incidentally. All of his friends, including me, threw up their hands at the thought of such an awkward, academic name. But it’s a precise name. Nobody has come up with a better one.
At any rate, Muller and I decided to jointly establish a Repository. I was to finance it, and he was to guide it. We drew up and signed an agreement to that effect. I set up a laboratory. But we never did anything about it as long as Muller lived. He always wanted to think through some of the problems. He dreaded any publicity, and it would indeed have been adverse at that time. He was a sensitive man. The equipment sat idle the rest of Muller’s life, and for years thereafter, because I was busy manufacturing lenses. But when I sold my lens company to 3M, I began contacting Nobelists. Muller had named several Nobelists as desirable donors. I didn’t intend to limit it to Nobelists, but I did want to start with them. Now we’ve extended the donors to Fields medalists. For some reason, Nobel specifically excluded mathematicians from the scientists who could win a Nobel Prize. Fields medalists in mathematics are younger, and at least the equivalent of Nobelists in the hard sciences, especially since there’s only one award every four years.
Is William Shockley the only donor who has publicly acknowledged taking part?
Yes. And I would like to explain why I’m eternally indebted to him. When I started recruiting donors for the Repository, I went to a number of Nobelists in California – there were about 21 in that state. One who agreed to be a donor was Shockley. [William Shockley won the Nobel Prize for his invention of the transistor.] Two others also agreed, and were making repeat donations. I called a press conference [February 29, 1980] and announced that The Repository was set up and looking for recipients. Immediately after the conference, one of the reporters called all the Nobelists in California to ask if they were donors. They all denied it. Even the donors denied having anything to do with it. And I understand why they had to. But Shockley said, “Yes, I’m a donor, and the others should be too. They should be ashamed if they’re not.” He was the one person who saved me from looking like the country’s champion liar. So when he ran for the U.S. Senate, I plugged for Shockley.
I read a little something about that, but I don’t think it got much national coverage.
He didn’t expect to win. But he had a point to make, that dysgenics is a serious problem that the legislature should be aware of. And I think he did accomplish that, to some extent.
How many different donors do you have now?
We now have about 19, most of whom are repeat donors.
Do you make any attempt to assess the personality and character traits of the donors?
When it comes to donors, we can be as rigorous as you could wish. There are hundreds of top-notch, world-class scientists. We can go to the ones we want. Most of them decline. But among those who agree to donate, we use only those with great creativity, which correlates closely with high IQ in the sciences, and those who have no serious hereditary taint. Myopia, hemorrhoids – we ignore a few minor things like that.
We include details about the personality and character of the donors on the information sheet. The recipients naturally want to know height, weight, coloring, ancestry and so forth. If there’s anything else worthy of note, we include that too – like “He is a highly skilled amateur musician,” or “He was an exceptional athlete when in college.” We list a comprehensive description. In the donor’s questionnaire, he has to answer hundreds of questions in order to eliminate the possibility of deleterious hereditary traits.
Do you ask about all the members of their family, like if there’s any schizophrenia or other mental illness?
If there’s any schizophrenia in the family history at all, they’re out. And there are many other things, like Tay-Sachs, we try to eliminate
I’ve read that Muller’s widow wants to dissociate his name from this project. It’s abundantly clear from his writings that Muller was an ardent proponent of eugenics, and that he specifically supported artificial insemination using the sperm of eminent men. How do you account for Mrs. Muller’s attitude?
I named it the Hermann J. Muller Repository for Germinal Choice. It was his concept, and it was unthinkable not to give him credit. But Thea, his wife, resented my using his name. Furthermore, she didn’t think that, in limiting it to Nobelists, I was doing it exactly the way Joe had said. Now, Joe had contemplated a lot of different ways in our years of discussion. There was no one, set final way to do it. We took his name off the letterhead, but retained the name Repository for Germinal Choice. Instead, I put on the letterhead “Co-founders: Hermann J. Muller and Robert K. Graham.” We are that – I have the documents
Do you think she might have been upset about the publicity?
No, but I think the embarrassing circumstances of the first two births made her think we weren’t doing things quite right. And there’s some truth to that contention, as we were naive at first. Still are, but less so (laughs). At first, we had a one-page questionnaire which we sent to potential recipients, and we required the husband to sign the application. In the first case (in which the woman had formerly been convicted of a felony) there was a husband. But we didn’t ask “Do you have a criminal record?” We do now. In the second case, there was the name of a husband on the application that was returned. It’s never been quite clear – I’ve purposely not delved into the specifics too closely, because there’s embarrassment all the way around, embarrassment that the husband didn’t materialize. I really think that Dr. Blake fully intended to have a husband, but I think he decided not to get married. Meanwhile, she was pregnant. We had supplied the material. So now with our questionnaire we require a photocopy of the marriage certificate. And we’ve lengthened the questionnaire to ten pages.
Then it’s an absolute requirement, that a woman be married? Or would you consider any exceptions, say if a single woman wanted to have a child, and had the economic and psychological resources to raise it on her own?
No, it’s absolute. It’s a matter of principle with us. We feel we’re innovative enough without trying to disrupt the mores of our society.
If this became widely used – for example, if all women who had artificial insemination went to The Repository for Germinal Choice – wouldn’t it be necessary to keep detailed records to avoid inadvertent inbreeding in the future? Especially if a relatively small number of donors is used for a large number of inseminations.
Our present system is to ask in the questionnaire we send the potential recipient, “Will you tell any child born of this arrangement the Repository number assigned to the germinal father?” If they agree to do that, then we make no special demands on them in that respect. If the child later wishes to marry, then he or she can ask the intended mate if the father’s number is the same.
And the chances are miniscule.
Right. But at least it makes for an absolute elimination of consanguinity, more accurate even than our present social system. In the few cases in which they elect not to tell the child, in which they prefer for the child to believe the husband is also the biological father, we will not use the donor they chose again in that state. Any subsequent applications from that state will not get that donor as a possible choice.
Does the Repository make any profit?
No, the Repository is a non-profit organization. We do not charge for the semen. We charge only for the incidentals – that is, shipping costs, costs of maintaining liquid nitrogen (which keeps the semen frozen) over several months. And we do charge an evaluation fee, because we have to engage at least two physicians to pass on these ten-page questionnaires the applicants return.
Is this essentially to make sure they’re healthy?
That’s right. One or more physicians will talk to the individual, usually by telephone. So we do thoroughly go into the characteristics of the recipients.
What other criteria do you have for selection of recipients, other than they be married and healthy?
Married, healthy, the brighter the better. They must be 40 or under. The incidence of Down’s syndrome goes up with the age of the mother. It never is very high, but Down’s syndrome is a major tragedy. So we want to minimize that possibility.
On the Phil Donahue Show [originally aired in Chicago on NBC on October 29, 1982], Paul Smith said that the Repository sends the germinal material to the recipients in little ampules which you refer to as “straws”‘ that are an eighth of an inch in diameter and two inches long. Is it a correct inference that one donation will be good for a number of inseminations?
Oh, yes. One donation theoretically might inseminate 20 or 40 women. Because first of all, we use extenders to help in the freezing. The real trick in doing this successfully is to freeze the semen rapidly so that ice crystals won’t form. The spermatazoa are preserved, without harm, indefinitely – at least 11 years that we’re sure of. To elaborate on your question – by using extenders, we can fill one straw (which is sufficient for one insemination) with only a fraction of a donation. It’s effective because the contents are placed at the os of the cervix. It’s not necessary to fill the vagina wastefully as nature does – it’s put right where it should go. We supply three straws for each ovulation, and recommend that they use one the day before they are scheduled to ovulate, one the day they are due to ovulate, and one the day after. So we shotgun it a bit, to allow for miscalculations. I might digress at this point – we try to encourage the husband to do the insemination, to give him a sense of involvement. Also, not many physicians know how to do it, and even those who do will be away on weekends, so if the woman ovulates then, the opportunity would be lost. So for a number of reasons, we try to make this a domestic program.
What does Paul Smith do exactly?
Paul makes our collections from donors. They wish it to be anonymous, so when Paul appears on television, he always wears a surgeon’s mask so he won’t be recognized. He also makes some deliveries of the germinal material, and the husband doesn’t want Paul to be recognized either. There are a lot of delicate feelings involved in this whole project. So we have to maintain absolute anonymity.
How do you feel generally about your treatment from the press?
Well, initially the press and other media were highly speculative and mostly adverse. But this is slowly changing. They’ve made every crude, sexy joke they can think of, and now they’ve totally depleted their imaginations (laughs). But even at the start, when the media were quite adverse, the message got through to the people who needed us. And we were willing to go anyplace and submit to scorn and ridicule in order to spread the word.
Do you think we’re seeing any changes in that regard?
I think so. By going over every study which bears on the subject of heredity versus environment, Arthur Jensen has concluded that variations in intelligence are about 69% hereditary, 25% environmental, and 5% attributable to test error. I think this is a fact of life, and it will be increasingly recognized. Cattell has said, and said very well, that hereditary improvement in the intellectual level of the population is by far the most permanent and the least expensive way to raise the level of capability in the population. But it’s not being sufficiently utilized. We spend billions on education, which is important. But there you have to start over again with each generation, whereas an hereditary improvement continues on for generations.
Are you basically optimistic or pessimistic about the future of eugenics?
I’m optimistic. It has a long way to go to become a common consideration when people contemplate parenthood. But I think with further education, people will pay more attention to it. And I think probably lots of people who don’t need our services are being made more cognizant by hearing about us and our concerns for good heredity in a child. Slowly people are becoming more “eugenics-minded.”
Some people involved in eugenics have religious or spiritual motivations. Do you see it as a humanitarian endeavor, or do you have some kind of religious basis for it?
I’m not myself a very spiritual person.
So you’d characterize your motives as essentially humanitarian?
Yes, essentially. Look at it from the point of view of the parents. These are couples who want a child, but can’t have one because the husband is infertile. With this program, they can have a child, and they can maximize the probability of having a bright, healthy and creative child. Consider the child, too. As a consequence he spends his life with the genes of the donor, as well as those of the mother. Why not provide the best genes possible?
Thank you so much for a fascinating interview.
It was my pleasure.
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