The world’s largest collections of stored genetic material are found in Sussex, England, Spitsbergen, Norway — and Los Angeles.
Sussex hosts the Millennium Seed Bank, which houses some 750 million species of plant seed. Spitsbergen, an island less than 600 miles from the North Pole, is the site of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which safeguards — inside a tunnel, inside a mountain — every variety of all of the Earth’s 21 major food crops. And Los Angeles is home to the California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the world, with enough human seed supercooled on-site to repopulate the planet several times over.
The first two projects are international efforts to preserve our genetic future; the last is a private enterprise on L.A.’s Westside run by a man occasionally known as “The King of Sperm.”
The King of Sperm wears Buddy Holly glasses. He is of medium height and medium build, balding, 69 years of age, with a penchant for flashy shirts and comfortable shoes. His name is Dr. Cappy Rothman and “Cappy” is not a nickname. It is the colorful moniker given to him by his colorful father — if by colorful one means mobbed up. See, the King of Sperm began his career in casinos. His father, Norman “Roughneck” Rothman, ran the San Souci Club in Havana, so Dr. Rothman spent his teenage years in Cuba.
One of his earliest jobs was ferrying cash — in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist — between Cuba and banks in the States. One of his later jobs was working as an organizer for Jimmy Hoffa — to raise extra cash for medical school at the University of Miami. This led him to a residency at the University of California in San Francisco, where he studied under the legendary urologist Frank Hinman Jr. Hinman was in the habit of assigning his students yearlong research projects on medical mysteries. How sperm got from testicle to outside world was the puzzle Rothman was assigned to solve during his first year of medical school. In his second year, it was the mechanism of erection. Two topics that explain both Rothman’s entrance into the world of infertility and the long way we’ve come in 40 years.
“I loved infertility immediately,” says Rothman. “There was so much we didn’t know. I felt like a pioneer.” By 1975, the pioneer was board-certified in urology and took a job at the now-defunct Tyler Clinic, becoming Los Angeles’ first male infertility specialist. Rothman established the Southern California Cryobank as an offshoot of the Tyler Clinic. A year later, he went out on his own, and the California Cryobank was born. That year, a U.S. senator’s son (Rothman prefers not to name him) was killed in a car crash. The statesman contacted Rothman and asked if his boy’s sperm could be saved. In 1977, Rothman published the very first article on sperm banking in the Journal of Urology.
In 1978, because of the work he’d done on the senator’s son, he published the first article on postmortem sperm retrieval, soon thereafter appearing on Oprah to explain it. Despite these accolades, what Rothman remembers most was a young couple who came to see him. “The man was infertile and the woman was angry. In the middle of that discussion, she turned to her husband and said, ‘Because I married you, I’ll never be a mother.’ It was a statement I never wanted to hear again. Then and there, I decided to open a sperm bank.”
If you adjust for size, the distance sperm must swim from testicle to ovum is the equivalent to that of a human running from Los Angeles to Seattle. Because of serious concern about transmission of diseases like AIDS to unborn children, and the drastic rise of what is known as “single mothers by choice,” the human seed in the King of Sperm’s collection now travels much farther — serving women in all 50 states and some 28 countries.
This is no small piece of the pie. In the United States, the fertility industry is an annual $3.3 billion business, with sperm banking accounting for $75 million of that. Thirty percent of that business flows through the California Cryobank — but even these numbers do not truly capture Rothman’s influence. Frozen sperm and eggs — which the California Cryobank also stores — are the first step in the assisted-reproduction chain, so wherever the sperm- and egg-bank business goes, so goes the rest.
As Rothman himself points out, “When California Cryobank makes a decision, some six months later the rest of the industry tends to follow.”
Increasingly, these decisions are no small thing. For almost four decades, the industry has operated almost completely unmolested. Outside of a mostly inept series of somewhat bizarre FDA rulings, there is no top-down governance in the field. It is, as it has always been, self-policing.