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Interview with Robert Klark Graham
Marian Van Court
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.