One thing for sure, genetic genealogy is not boring. It is, as you would expect, scientific, complex, and complicated. But when all is said and done, genetic genealogy can be downright salacious and disturbing – which makes it a perfect topic to discuss around the water cooler and at cocktail parties. One such story surfaced just last month.
It turns out, an employee at a fertility clinic in Salt Lake City may have switched his sperm with that of hundreds of the clinic’s clients, thus fathering a slew of children between 1986 and 1997. This is not just some cheesy plot for a made-for-TV movie – it is true story and has been widely reported. Granted, the majority of fertility clinics that offer artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization are providing a beneficial service to those individuals who cannot become pregnant the “regular” way. But when someone like Thomas Lippert takes it upon himself to switch his sperm samples with those of hopeful fathers (who happen to be clients of the fertility clinic), then we have an ugly turn of events.
What kind of person would do such a thing? you ask. In the case of Thomas Lippert, prior to starting his job at Reproductive Medical Technologies, Inc. (RMTI) in 1986, the “constant donor” served two years in prison for kidnapping. The charges stem back to when he was 25 years old in 1975 and a law professor at Southwest State College in Marshall, Minnesota. The guy was no dummy. Though Lippert was from a working-class family, he received a first-rate education, graduating magna cum laude from St. Cloud College, and then later from Notre Dame.
But you know as well as I, brains don’t necessarily make someone smart, and they certainly don’t make someone exempt from a propensity to criminality or mental illness. At the same time, being smart doesn’t automatically make someone nice. The demons that rattled Lippert were unleashed in 1975 when he decided to kidnap a young woman and submit her to electroshock and brainwashing to make her love him. Now there’s a very un-Valentine story for you! After serving two years for the crime, Lippert set his sights high and got a job at RMTI.
Though Lippert died in 1999 from chronic alcoholism, he managed to leave a human legacy of genetic genealogy in at least one case – a daughter (we’ll call her “Ashley”) who was born in 1992 to clients of RMTI. Though Ashley’s family did NOT want or need a sperm donor, Lippert, a mere employee of the clinic, managed to insinuate his sample into the mix. The reality of the situation made itself known quite by accident when in January 2014 results from a paternity test taken through 23andMe showed that Ashley’s father was not biologically related to her.
The decision to trace their genetic genealogy and undergo DNA testing was really a lark for Ashley’s family. Admittedly, Ashley exhibits biological characteristics and mannerisms atypical from the rest of her family – she has a penchant for music, dance, physics, and a desire to learn Russian – but in the end, the decision for DNA testing was just for the heck of it.
Once Ashley’s mother “Paula” discovered the glitch in Ashley’s paternity, she used the 23andMe DNA testing results to track down a cousin of Lippert’s. In the meantime, Lippert’s mother submitted to genetic genealogy DNA testing, which proved that Lippert was indeed the biological father of Ashley.
As you can imagine, once the cat was out of the bag, anyone who conceived with the help of RMTI between 1986 and 1997 wondered if the same thing had happened to them. The fact Lippert would do such a thing in one case leads many to believe that he may have done the same to hundreds of other families. The clinic was associated with the University of Utah, which has agreed to provide free genetic genealogy DNA testing for clients of the clinic who were treated during the years that Lippert was employed.
Unfortunately, the talented Mr. Lippert took the secret to his grave, so we can never really be sure if he slipped up once, or many many times. Time and DNA testing will reveal the answer to this genetic genealogy mystery.
Though the RMTI clinic closed, 23andMe was able to provide the genealogical data that identified the “mystery” donor, in Ashley’s case. Her family has since launched a website Was Your Child Fathered by Thomas Lippert?. Their main message is:
“Although some may feel that it is preferable not to know if Mr. Lippert is the biological father of your child, we believe the knowledge of biological heritage is essential to avoid half-siblings who may be living in the same communities potentially engaging in romantic relationships, as well as for family medical history.”
While such a genetic genealogy finding can deliver a devastating blow to a family, in the case of Ashley, her family loves her no less – she is who she is because of genetic genealogy, something that cannot be changed.
As crazy as this story may be, it does serve as a reminder that genetic genealogy is the very fiber of our being. It also reminds us that blood may be thicker than water, but it is not necessarily the cement that creates the love between a parent and child.
Whether you are intent on finding biological parents, proving paternity, getting information on your medical history, or just interested in the genetic genealogy of your family, there are genealogical DNA testing services that can assist you in your genealogy search. Rather than just focusing on the scientific aspect of genetic genealogy, you may consider working with a genealogy research service such as RecordClick, which offers DNA testing through 23andMe, as well as a host of comprehensive professional genealogy research services that will enhance your ancestor search. It’s the perfect Valentine’s gift for your family.
For more information on genetic genealogy and DNA testing, please visit our three-part series with Dr. Tim Janzen, a medical doctor, geneticist, and consultant for 23andMe:
Part 1: An Introduction to Genetic Genealogy – Finding the 1% Solution
Part 2: Choosing the Right Autosomal DNA Test Shouldn’t Be a Random Process
Part 3: Exploring the Use of Autosomal DNA for Genealogical Purposes