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Robert Graham, Founder of Exclusive Sperm Bank, Dies

Genetics: His controversial Repository for Germinal Choice sought Nobelists as donors in effort to breed geniuses. Most of the resulting children remain anonymous.

February 18, 1997|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Robert Klark Graham, 90, a millionaire optometrist who founded the world's most discriminating sperm bank to nurture what he believed were the human seeds of genius, has died.

He died Thursday in Seattle while attending the annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. He was found in his hotel room bathtub after hitting his head in a fall, his wife, Marta Everton Graham, said.

By pioneering the invention of shatterproof eyeglass lenses, worn today by as many as 100 million people, Graham earned a fortune, but it was his unusual investment in his beliefs about the heredity of human intelligence that earned him international fame.

To put those beliefs into practice, Graham in 1980 founded a controversial sperm bank in Escondido, Calif., called the Repository for Germinal Choice, devoted to preserving and disseminating the genes of only the most intelligent and accomplished of men.

Nobel laureate William Shockley, known for his belief that blacks are genetically inferior, was one of the sperm bank's first--and most controversial--contributors.

Graham's effort to foster the breeding of test-tube geniuses was enough to catapult him into the forefront of a worldwide debate over scientific control of human conception.

No sooner had the sperm bank opened than ethicists and medical experts started debating whether Graham was intent on making babies or playing God. His pursuit of genetic excellence through selective conception was denounced as scientifically flimsy, elitist and "morally pernicious."

Quickly dubbed the Nobel sperm bank, Graham's project was only one in a series of startling developments in the technology of human reproduction during the 1980s that raised serious ethical, legal and religious questions.

Graham's sperm bank initially sought only Nobel laureates such as Shockley as donors. But he quickly broadened its scope to include less accomplished scientists and other professionals who had an IQ of at least 130 after he discovered that most Nobel Prize winners were too old or too uninterested to participate.

"IQ is not the only criterion now," said Anita Neff, the repository's administrative director. "Health has become the No. 1 factor; IQ is No. 2. No. 3 is the donor's achievement."

The emphasis on achievement, rather than just raw IQ, is a kind of quality control measure, Neff said. "You can find some very smart people in the world who are not socially acceptable, so we make sure that [our donors] are well-adjusted, bright individuals, not just bright," she said.

In the years since it opened, the sperm bank has assisted in the conception of 218 children in the United States, Australia, Lebanon, Egypt and Germany. Most have remained anonymous. "The children we do know of are all bright and healthy, not necessarily geniuses but bright and healthy," Neff said.

Despite his hopes, Graham was never able to produce any tangible evidence that his practices could measurably improve the intelligence of human stock.

When the repository marked its 10th anniversary in 1992, Graham sent detailed questionnaires to the parents of the repository's offspring, hoping to assess his work.

"Most of them simply wouldn't answer," Graham conceded in a 1992 interview with The Times. "This taught us that we're not a scientific project. We are a familial, constructive project. We're getting positive results, but we won't know for another 20 years if we've helped create better people," he said.

Neff said the clinic planned to stay in operation for the near future.

In addition to his wife, Graham is survived by six children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 5 p.m. today at the Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido.

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