(CNN) — It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood movie: An eccentric millionaire creates a sperm bank with donations from only extraordinary men — Nobel laureates, an Olympic athlete and geniuses with off-the-chart IQs.
The mission? To create a generation of smarter, healthier, more productive members of society
But this was no movie plot. This actually happened.
Robert K. Graham — a businessman who made his fortune after inventing shatterproof eyeglasses — founded the Repository for Germinal Choice in 1980. It operated until 1999, two years after his death.
Graham was very clear about his motives: He wanted to improve the human gene pool.
“The better the human gene pool, the better the individuals who will come out of it,” Graham said. “And the poorer the human gene pool, the more useless and detrimental individuals will come out of it.”
Not surprisingly, the so-called “Nobel Prize sperm bank” attracted controversy and accusations that Graham was a racist, resurrecting the ideas that gave rise to Nazi Germany — something he denied.
On Sunday, some of the men and women who were born as a result of Graham’s project reveal how their lives have evolved on this week’s episode of “This is Life with Lisa Ling.”
Here are some interesting facts about the Repository for Germinal Choice:
It didn’t cost that much
Women who applied for Graham’s genius sperm only had to come up a $50 application fee and $10 a month for storage and shipping costs, according to a 1984 New York Times article on the sperm bank.
The moms didn’t have to be geniuses
They had to be married (although there was an exception made for at least one single mother), but the mothers did not have to take an IQ test or go through any genetic screening.
Donors were recruited on college campuses
Julianna McKillop, who worked for the repository from 1980 to 1985, recalls traveling up and down the West Coast visiting elite college campuses looking for sperm donors.
“I’d take the tanks of liquid nitrogen in Dr. Graham’s Cadillac and drive up to CalTech and talk to the students (and professors),” she told Lisa Ling. If someone was willing, she provided him a cup and some private time. She’d store the donation in the back of the Cadillac with the liquid nitrogen.
“Can you imagine doing that? It wasn’t easy to get a donor, they’d kind of go like, ‘Why are you in my office?’ And I said, ‘Well you have some genetic material and there’s some people out there that can use that, they would like to have a child.'”
All the donors were white
While most of the donors remain anonymous, Graham did acknowledge that they were all white, according to David Plotz, author of “The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.” But Graham strongly denied that he was a racist or a Nazi.
“We aren’t thinking of a superrace,” Graham said at a 1980 news conference, according to Plotz’s book. “We are thinking in terms of a few more creative, intelligent people who otherwise might not be born.”
The sperm bank produced some 215 children — and many lead quite ordinary lives today
Most of the progeny of the “genius sperm bank” who have spoken publicly say they did quite well in school. Today, as adults, many seem to be pretty ordinary: Tom runs a roofing business, Leandra is an opera singer, Courtney is a dancer, Logan has a form of autism.
And several claim to feel pressure to do something extraordinary with their lives. As Tom puts it, “I have to do something with the gifts that I’ve been given.”
But Adrienne — mother of Leandra, Courtney, and Logan — says having “genius sperm” is no guarantee for happiness and success. “There’s only so much you can control when it comes to genetics,” she says. “It all has to do with what you give to your family.”
Graham paved the way for how many sperm banks operate today
Despite all the criticism, Graham paved the way for couples to have more of a choice in determining their sperm donors — something that is commonplace today, as more and more men and women seek fertility treatment.
At the Fairfax Cryobank, less than 1% of the men who apply to be donors actually become active donors, according to lab director Michelle Ottey.
“It’s a rigorous screening process, which is a good thing because we want really high-quality guys in the program,” she explained. “Statistically it’s easier to get into an Ivy League school than it is to get into the Fairfax donor program.”