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JEFF JOHNSON WAS in a hurry. His lunch break was nearing its end, and he needed to catch the 6 train back to Union Square, where he worked an entry-level job at the publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He flew down the stairs to the subterranean clinic on New York’s Upper East Side, into a Bond-chic windowless cave of an office. He greeted the nurse—lab technician?—he wasn’t sure which, and ducked into an exam room stocked with straight pornography he wouldn’t use. 

The year was 1974. The clinic, Idant, had opened three years earlier, one of the country’s first commercial sperm banks. Johnson had heard through a friend that they were seeking men with twice the average sperm count. He was 21, needed the money, and figured it would make a good pickup line at the bars in Greenwich Village.

The sperm bank had requested some basics: height, weight, eye color, race, religion, education. The health portion of the application comprised half a page: blood type, causes of immediate family members’ deaths, a checklist of about a dozen medical conditions, including... see more