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  The Vista Online  

Photo by Midori Sasaki

Genetics of Genius

Biology professor donates sperm for 'Advancement of Man'

by Nathan Winfrey

February 21, 2006


UCO biology professor Dr. Jim Bidlack has recently spoken out about his role in a controversial genetics experiment meant to improve the intelligence of humankind, funded by late multimillionaire inventor Robert Graham.

Bidlack received a letter in June 1996 from the Foundation for the Advancement of Man, inviting him to take part in an unprecedented experiment to enrich the human gene pool through the donation of sperm from contributors who excel academically or physically.

“Nobody else at the university got one of these that I know of,” Bidlack said in his cramped office, his walls cluttered with patriotic photographs of President Bush and Bidlack’s wife, Amy.

“Somewhere in that letter, it said that I was recognized as an intellectual individual and the word ‘repository’ was in there and I started getting the gist of this letter that they wanted me to provide sperm for this bank, and I thought it was a joke.”

He said he suspected former professor Dr. David Elmendorf, who frequently stole, defaced and held for ransom Bidlack’s pictures of the president, of sending him the letter as a prank, but Elmendorf denied it, adding, “Why would they want you?”

“He was a lot of fun when he was here at UCO,” Bidlack said, fondly.

“I was more curious than anything. I wanted to know how they got my name,” Bidlack said. “So I sent a letter back saying, ‘yeah, tell me more about this.’”

“The basic premise of the genius baby project,” Bidlack said, “is that smart people don’t often reproduce because they are too busy getting educated. By the time intelligent couples are ready to have children, it can be too late.”

He said these couples seek out donors who can help them give their babies genes that will help them achieve excellence in life.

“That’s called eugenics and that’s where it gets controversial. Hitler practiced eugenics,” he said. “Graham decided to be rather unique and do something that had never been done before, his idea was not kill but to help.”

“To me, that’s positive eugenics,” he said.

Bidlack said he completed a survey on his family and medical history, though his first thoughts were, “I’m not gonna do this.”

The Repository for Germinal Choice flew Bidlack to Escondido, Calif., and after extensive tests and a meeting with Graham in Oklahoma City where Bidlack donated his first specimen in Graham’s hotel bathroom for testing, he agreed to take part, joining Nobel prize winners, opera singers and Olympic gold medalists.

“My dad was a pretty famous man; he worked on the Manhattan Project,” Bidlack said.

He said the repository found his name listed on the “Who’s Who in America” list and discovered that Bidlack’s father had a son who was an award-winning professor at a university and that his age was right.

He said the repository found many of its donors through that list, but, “I was one of the few that at least showed some interest.”

“I had to donate and that’s the fun part,” Bidlack said. “I had to put a specimen in the cup.”

He said he did this twice a week for two years.

“There was this regimen that I had to go through,” Bidlack said. “Girlfriends were like ‘you want me to do what?’ It was awkward sometimes.”

He said during those two years, he couldn’t stay up late, drink more than a little alcohol or smoke because those things could lower his sperm count. He said he got in trouble a couple of times when tests showed his numbers were low.

“They said ‘what happened?’ and I said, ‘I had a fun weekend,” Bidlack said.

He received an e-mail in 1998 that told him he had a baby girl with red hair and good health.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I was like, ‘they really are doing it.’”

“I felt pretty happy to have helped out a couple,” Bidlack said.

The recipients of his donations were screened as well, and all prospective mothers had to be married to men and financially stable. They also had to pay about $3,000 per sample, and it usually doesn’t work the first time, he said.

Bidlack said this money did not go to the donors, but to the scientists and repository’s staff.

“We did this voluntarily,” he said.

Bidlack said another point of controversy was that Graham hand-picked the donors and the recipients.

“This particular sperm bank was only for white Caucasian, Christian individuals,” he said. “It’s the first sperm bank of its kind that ever did that, that had profiles of the individuals that they could look at.”

“Most recipients chose an individual who was most like the true husband,” Bidlack said. “That was kind of reassuring to know that the couple that chose me, chose me because I was a lot like the husband.”

In addition to the child Bidlack fathered through the repository, between 200 and 300 children have been born to mothers from donations of “genius” sperm since the program began in 1980.

“I’m the last of the donors,” Bidlack said. He said the program shut down in 2000 when founder Graham, who earned his fortune when he invented the plastic used in glasses and contact lenses during World War II, died.

“He had decided to use his money to help improve humankind,” Bidlack said. “He died, I think, feeling pretty good that he had changed things.”

The experiment has been drawing the public eye since the publication of “The Genius Factory” by David Plotz last year, which tells the story of the donors, the recipients and their offspring.

“The book is selling like hotcakes,” he said.

“When David Plotz wanted to do the story, he asked if any of the donors would be willing to speak,” Bidlack said. “This is apparently why I’ve been interviewed a lot.”

He said that in recent months, he has answered questions for “Good Morning America,” “Nightline” and the BBC. He said he wanted to wait until he received tenure at UCO before going public.

“Some people think it’s cool,” he said. “Some people think it’s not necessarily a good thing.”

“They (the children) have come out pretty smart,” Bidlack said. “The question is, are they that way because the fathers are that way, or because of how they were raised? I would argue a little of both.”

“I’ve got a daughter out there somewhere and someday she might come looking for me,” he said.

Bidlack and his wife also had a child, Hannah, who is nearly four years old. He said he’s glad they had a girl because of his admittedly irrational fear that one of their children might meet and fall in love with his child from the repository.

Bidlack said that in the future, “The only person that’s going to get any contribution from me in my genius baby project is my one and only true love, and that’s my wife.”

He said his wife is proud of his involvement with the program, but that she sometimes uses it against him, saying things like, “OK genius, go empty the trash.”

“I think it’s having a positive impact on the world,” Bidlack said. “So far, so good.”