The Surprising Birthplace of the First Sperm Bank

What happened when "fatherhood after death" was proved possible

Frozen sperm at the California Cryobank (Reuters)

In a country scandalized and outraged so easily, the sperm bank has been naturalized. To say one works at a sperm bank would cause no more of a commotion than to say one works at an investment bank, surely.

But it was not always so.

There had to be a first sperm bank, and those early bankers felt the excitement and fear of the new.

The year was 1952. They were two doctors in Iowa. And they had figured out how to freeze sperm, thaw it back to active life, and use it to help families to conceive.

The year after they began, a nationwide poll found 28 percent of Americans approved of artificial insemination. That winter, three babies born from thawed sperm were born.

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If at first Iowa seems like a surprising place for the technique to get its start, consider this: humans are animals, too, and Iowa was a hotbed of animal research, particularly in the realm of dairy cows, which farmers had been artificially inseminating since the 1930s.

The bull-semen market was already large—and by the early '50s, up to three-quarters of breeders were using sperm from champion bulls. There was a big incentive for researchers to experiment with ways of spreading champion sperm around as widely and for as long as possible. Plus, with bulls, the stakes were lower.

The idea of assisted reproduction in humans elicited fear and skepticism. Such technologies weren't yet seen as a tool that would enhance reproductive choices, but as a possible threat that might be wielded by the state.

Consider how writer George Orwell imagined the future in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

"Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother."

While Orwell and others may have worried about the social implications of reproductive technologies for humans, animal researchers were celebrating the genetic improvement of their herds as reflected in better milk production. It might have been unnatural, but it wasn't unholy.

So farm researchers became the leading edge of biological research into reproduction. And one thing they'd discovered was simple and amazing: sperm are rugged little biological machines that will always, no matter where and no matter what, look for an egg to fertilize.

A champion bull having his semen collected. (Reuters)

By the early 1950s, British scientists had successfully frozen sperm and inseminated a cow, leading to the birth of a little calf they named Frosty.

And it was about this time that a graduate student named Jerome Sherman began tinkering with freezing his own sperm, "testing freezing protocols in search of a technique that would maximize the percentage of viable sperm," according to Northeastern law professor and historian of science Kara Swanson's fascinating paper, The Birth of the Sperm Bank, from which this account is largely drawn.

There were three main variables that Sherman optimized by building on existing work in animals: how slowly to cool down or heat up the sperm, how much semen to use, and what kinds of additives to mix into the solution.

It's not hard to test for viability, after all. After thawing out the sperm, Sherman could simply look at them under a microscope and count how many were moving well. To this day, visual inspection remains the dominant way of evaluating sperm quality.

Sherman had been more focused on freezing kidney tissue as part of his academic work, but after meeting Raymond Bunge, a urologist out to make a name for himself, his sperm-freezing hobby became his actual scholarly job.

Their first paper together describes a technique that seemed to keep the sperm swimming. Add some glycerol—a sugary chemical sometimes used in low-fat cookies—then slowly bring down the temperature. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine.

By the time the paper came out, three women had been inseminated with the previously frozen sperm. Bunge was on the staff at Iowa's fertility clinic, and so within months of Sherman's experiments beginning, the duo had real patients on whom they could test the new procedure.

By July, three pregnancies were in progress: they were to be the first children conceived with sperm that had been frozen and thawed. The two scientists had quickly translated animal breeding science into human reproductive medicine.

They tried to publish the results in the journal Science, the most prestigious American publication, but we're turned down until "the products of the conception have been observed." That is to say, they'd proven that frozen sperm could fertilize an egg and cause a pregnancy, but they didn't really know if the freezing process would do something unexpected in the reproductive process. In other words, they weren't sure how the babies would turn out. They X-rayed the fetal skeletons—a common procedure at the time—and everything seemed okay.

So they sent their paper to Nature in Britain, where it was accepted. The article appeared in October 1953. The related press release was titled, "Women Pregnant by Frozen Human Sperm."

That announcement eventually caught the attention of the New York Times, among others. The Times noted that it was an unprecedented event, but that "frozen cells have been used widely in animal husbandry," and that prize bull semen had been "flown as far as Argentina."

Back in Iowa, as the researchers waited for the first baby to be born, letters began to pour in. Bunge recalls receiving notes from people who called him "a scientific monster, un-Christian, and a disgrace to medicine."

In late December, the first baby arrived. At first all seemed well, but soon the baby was found to be blind in one eye. Then the child started having seizures. Bunge wrote to colleagues all over the country trying to determine if the frozen sperm had played a role in the problems. After several months, the diagnosis came in: Toxoplasmosis, a parasite the mother contracted during pregnancy. (Pregnant women today are cautioned to avoid cat's litter boxes and gardening to prevent exposure to the parasite.) In their paper about the frozen-sperm children—the others were born shortly thereafter—all of them were were described as normal.

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Bunge, at least, was put off by the negative attention that the work drew, especially after a sensationalistic article ran in the local Cedar Rapids Gazette (Headline: "Fatherhood After Death Has Now Been Proved Possible.") It wasn't easy pioneering new reproductive technologies in the heartland. Some sperm was kept frozen at the University of Iowa for years afterward, but large-scale use of it or its sale to consumers never developed.

Sherman remained enthusiastic. He moved on to the University of Arkansas and was great promoter of cryobiology and reproductive technology. Despite bad publicity and continuing problems with frozen sperm, the process gradually became normalized as more and more babies were born with their aid.

Social acceptance came in part with the emergence of HIV in the mid-1980s. Because HIV infections sometimes took months to show up on the tests of the time, doctors realized they could effectively quarantine sperm by freezing them, giving them time to retest donors for HIV before using that sperm.

Looking back at the Cedar Gazette article and others, what was most fascinating to people at the time wasn't that sperm might be donated, sold, and bought, but that fathering a child might be possible after death. While the possibility of posthumous conception remains with us—and even went before the Supreme Court—it is no longer the focus in thinking about fertilization treatments. The really wild possibilities have never come to pass. And although commercial sperm banks advertise certain genetic traits, there is no library of Great Men to choose from. Humans are not dairy cattle and we do not have anyone optimizing us for production, or anything else.

Instead of using assisted reproductive technologies as Orwell (or Aldous Huxley) imagined, we've deployed them in line with the values of freedom and autonomy, not improvement and optimization. We've used assisted reproductive technology to extend the possibilities of parenthood to gay, lesbian, and single people under the banner of reproductive choice.

But it did not have to be this way, and it's important to remember that.

"Assisted reproductive technologies demand as much social as technological innovation to make sense of the biological and social relationships that [assisted reproductive technologies] forge and deny," anthropologist Charis Thompson has noted. That is to say, technologies like sperm banking, artificial insemination, and in-vitro fertilization themselves contained multiple possibilities, and it was how they unfolded in our culture that prevented the totalitarian future our ancestors feared.

"The technology that enables today’s sperm banks was developed in the 1950s," Northeastern's Swanson writes. "What has changed in the intervening half century is the legal, social, and political context for using frozen semen, not human biology."