Good sperm — infused with the DNA of super-smart, anonymous fathers — doesn’t guarantee academic success for children.

Good sperm — infused with the DNA of super-smart, anonymous fathers — doesn’t guarantee academic success for children.


That was one of the conclusions David Plotz reached after the Slate magazine editor tracked down about 40 children conceived through the now-defunct “Nobel Prize sperm bank” for highly intelligent people.


“It’s not as easy as you flick a switch and a child becomes a man,” Plotz, who will give a lecture Tuesday in Springfield, said in a telephone interview.


“What makes the child is all kinds of interactions and history and family and love and affection and the society around them, ... not simply just a little DNA,” Plotz said.


Plotz, 37, will speak about his book — “The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank” — during a free lecture at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s South Auditorium, 801 N. Rutledge St.


Plotz first researched the former Repository for Germinal Choice near San Diego, for a series of articles published in 2001 by Slate, an online publication. That developed into a Random House book that was published in 2005.


The bank operated from 1980 to 1999 and helped produce more than 200 children.

Plotz said the late Robert Graham, a politically conservative multimillionaire who invented shatterproof plastic eyeglasses, opened the bank because he believed America was “on the road to genetic catastrophe.”


“Too many stupid people, as he saw it, were having too many children,” he said.

Plotz said Graham persuaded only three Nobel Prize winners — among them transistor inventor William Shockley, now dead — to donate sperm. Most turned Graham down because they didn’t like his politics, thought the venture had elitist overtones or felt they weren’t worthy.


“They didn’t think they were the greatest specimens of humanity,” Plotz said.

Plotz eventually tracked down about one-fifth of the 200 children. His anecdotal research determined that most of the 40 were above-average students — including a brilliant mathematician and an opera singer — but most weren’t geniuses.


Plotz said he thinks the children were above-average mainly because they had mothers with the drive necessary to seek out a sperm bank known for smart donors.


“I think genes matter a huge amount,” Plotz said. “But the things that really stand out with these women, who tend to be quite bright and tend to be a little richer than the average American, is that they are motivated.”


Plotz’s book also has a connection to Lincoln’s hometown.


He said one of the book’s main characters, a 15-year-old boy from the Midwest whom Plotz gave the pseudonym Tom Legare, learned he was a sperm-bank child when he and his mother visited Springfield’s Lincoln sites in 2001.


The mother revealed the secret during an argument with her son in a Springfield hotel room. She was trying to dissuade the teen from trying to become a professional wrestler, Plotz said.


After hearing his mother’s news, the boy thought his biological father might be a famous scientist such as polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk, who was rumored to be one of the sperm bank’s donors.


The boy later learned, with the help of Plotz’s detective work, that his father really was an unsuccessful physician living in squalor in Florida. The doctor was a deadbeat dad to numerous children fathered with different women, Plotz said.


But Plotz said the boy learned “he can’t depend on having Jonas Salk’s genes. He has to depend on himself now.”


Plotz said the sperm bank, which offered women a catalog of anonymous donors listing IQ, ethnicity and interests, was one of the first to give prospective clients such detailed information — a practice that now is commonplace.


 “It led to a whole culture where, when women go to sperm banks, they are ‘shopping’ for sperm,” said Plotz. “It turned women from patients to shoppers. The danger is when the parents’ expectation for what their child can be doesn’t match what science and nature allow. There’s no return policy on a kid.”


Dean Olsen can be reached at 788-1543 or


On the Web: For more information about David Plotz’s book, go to To read the 2001 Slate magazine series that began his investigation into the Nobel Prize sperm bank, go to


 For more information on Plotz’s upcoming lecture in Springfield, call Southern Illinois University School of Medicine’s medical humanities department at 545-4261. His lecture will be sponsored by the humanities department, Friends of Pearson Museum and the Illinois Humanities Council.