A secret sperm donor service in post-first world war London

The strange tale of how 500 women were helped to conceive after the first world war

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

These days there are sophisticated and scientific solutions to the dismal problem of unwanted childlessness — there are IVF, Viagra and well-established egg and sperm donor services. We think of these as recent advantages and give thanks for the modern age.

But what only very few people are aware of is that long before sperm donation was practically or ethically possible, in the early 20th century, a secret sperm donation service existed for those women most in need.

Helena Wright was a renowned doctor, bestselling author, campaigner and educator who overcame the establishment to pioneer contraceptive medicine in England and throughout the world. Kind, intelligent, funny and attractive, Helena had a way with words and a devoted set of friends. She adored men and spent her life helping women.

Helena had a great hit in America and Europe with a book called The Sex Factor in Marriage, which financed her innovative medical practice. She opened two clinics: one for very privileged women in Knightsbridge, one for the poor in Notting Hill. And it was from these offices that she undertook perhaps her greatest work: to assist hundreds of women whose husbands had returned from the first world war unable to father children.

Between 1914 and 1918 one million Englishmen were killed in France and Belgium. Thousands more were wounded, gassed or shellshocked in the trenches. The appalling losses of the war left many women widowed and led to a shortage of potential husbands, a gender imbalance compounded by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. They were known as ‘the mateless multitude’.

Among the men lucky enough to return home to wives after the war, many were un-able to perform sexually, whether because of direct injury or shellshock — what we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a tremendously delicate subject — witness D.H. Lawrence’s decision to make Clifford Chatterley ‘only half a man’, deprived of his virility by war; this aspect of the novel was considered to be the cruel breaking of a taboo.

No wonder, then, that by 1918 Helena Wright had many hundreds of women on her books who had confided to her that they needed help. These women loved their husbands and would never have left them, but they also craved children. What they needed was a sperm donor, before such a thing existed.

So Helena began to look for a very particular person — someone who could father children for these women without any ties. She needed a man of certain stock: tall, handsome (with decent teeth), intelligent, well bred, healthy — and reliably virile.

The answer turned out to be Derek. Derek was born in 1889 in Colorado and raised between England and what was then Ceylon, where his father had a partnership in a rubber and tea plantation. By the age of 19 Derek had grown to be a handsome and amusing young man. He was sent to Malaya to run another rubber plantation in 1909, when there was an insatiable demand for rubber to make tyres for motorcars.

When the first world war broke out, Derek had been ordered — to his frustration — to remain at his post developing rubber for the war effort and in 1918, at the conclusion of an armistice between Germany, France and England, he had returned to England where he met and courted the young nurse, Suzanne, who would become his wife. In 1919 Suzanne introduced him to Dr Helena Wright.

It was a momentous meeting. As their friendship developed, Helena confided in Derek, explaining she had a list of 1,000 women on her books whose husbands could not father children as a result of the war. Derek was touched and excited to think he could help. So the secret service was born. Each would-be mother signed a pledge to stay schtum, and paid £10 to a trust fund which allowed Helena to administer the service and covered prenatal care in Helena’s clinics.

It was determined there would be no prior meetings between Derek and the women — minimising the risk of nerves or second thoughts. Each woman would send Helena a telegram with their optimal dates for conceiving. The husbands would have the option of meeting Derek or going away (most went away) — and a date for the visit would be set.

Ahead of the chosen date, Helena would send a telegram to Derek. On the night, he would dress in a dark suit, white shirt and polka-dot bow tie, take his Homburg hat and a black leather Gladstone bag containing a nightshirt and bottle of brandy. His good manners, smile and enthusiasm did the trick.

Derek visited close to 500 women in the years that followed. Many conceived and he never went back a second time. Derek and Helena’s secret collaboration was a success for which neither could ever take credit, but they were doing good: providing longed-for children where there would have been none.

In the course of her long career, Helena attracted considerable controversy and legal charges. She made no secret of the fact that in the 1940s she had arranged abortions and in the 1950s ‘third-party adoptions’ (bringing together women who had unwanted pregnancies with childless couples). At her trial in 1968, she faced criminal prosecution for this and pleaded guilty, but was given an absolute discharge.

She was working and travelling, surrounded by friends and loving family, until the age of 93. Derek fathered 496 children between 1917 and 1950. He had three sons by his only marriage, and two further sons by his father’s mistress. Then there were four more sons left behind in Malaya. The rest of his progeny were conceived to patients of Helena Wright’s Knightsbridge and Notting Hill clinics.

After falling ill he resisted, with characteristic savvy and wit, all attempts to admit him to hospital. He died, in 1974, on a mattress that had been moved next to his Aga cooker for warmth.

Within a year of his death an ad had appeared in Private Eye: ‘£50 for temporary relationship resulting in pregnancy.’ One more taboo had been lifted.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Paul Spicer is the author of The Temptress, The Scandalous Life of Alice, Countess de Janze (Simon & Schuster)

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Show comments
  • Lee Moore

    A remarkable and uplifting tale.

    1. Doc Wright publishes hit book called “The Sex Factor in Marriage”

    2. The success of the book enables her to set up clinics in Knightsbridge and Notting Hill

    3. Enabling her to identify hundreds of women wanting sperm donors

    4. And in 1919 she finds the prefect sperm donor called Derek

    5. And then there are there are several hundred happy women with children

    The only small difficulty is that 8 seconds googling reveals that “The Sex Factor in Marriage” wasn’t published until 1930. A further 12 seconds googling reveals that Doc Wright was a missionary in China from 1921 until 1927 and only started establishing her medical practice in the UK when she returned. So if Derek existed, he was only providing his services from 1930 or so, not just after the Great War. By which time childless war widows would have been at least 30-40 years old, making one shot conceptions very unusual.

    Let’s have the real story.

    • Bronwyn Beesley

      I first heard this tale from my English upper crust uncles and did not believe but I now know who Derek was1 The dates of Mrs Wright’s China work vary from article to article. It is true. I have randy relatives
      Bronwyn Beesley

  • Theobald Wallingford

    How many of the 496 children got to sit on their biological father’s lap while he read them a story, or were taken fishing, or were walked up the aisle at their wedding? How many unknowingly fell in love and got married, not knowing they were in an incestuous relationship? How many got to trace their paternal genealogy, and could truthfully answer the question we all yearn to know – “who am I?” How many were simply lied to their entire life about their origins?

    So not an uplifting story. Derek seems to have been a man who enjoyed sex and in true social Darwinian fashion excelled at propagating his genes, without any responsibility for his actions whatsoever.

    ‘One more taboo had been lifted’ … are we supposed to rejoice at this? The taboo of abortion was lifted resulting in the slaughter of millions. Most taboos arise for good reason.

    • Lee Moore

      1. “How many of the 496 children got to sit on their biological father’s lap while he read them a story, or were taken fishing, or were walked up the aisle at their wedding? ”

      Aside from the acknowledged ones, almost certainly none of them. On the other hand, sans Derek none of the 496 children would ever have been read a story by anybody, nor been taken fishing, nor been walked up the aisle. Cos none of ’em would have existed.

      2. How many unknowingly fell in love and got married, not knowing they were in an incestuous relationship?

      Again, almost certainly none of them. Given ten million people in the London area, the odds against any of 500 half brothers and sisters meeting up and mating is pretty small. Let’s say 4 million of the 10 million are available for mating at any one time, the odds on a half-brother mating with one of his 250 half sisters is about one in eight thousand (assuming all 250 are on deck at the same time.) Multiply it out for 250 separate brothers and you get odds of about 97% against any incestuous mating happening. If you say only 100 of the half sisters are available to each half brother (for the story as told has Derek doing his thing over 30 years) then the odds against increase to about 99%. Note that’s not the odds against any particular half brother mating with one of his half sisters, it’s the odds against any of the half brothers mating with any of the half sisters.

      3. How many got to trace their paternal genealogy, and could truthfully answer the question we all yearn to know – “who am I?” How many were simply lied to their entire life about their origins?

      Again, probably none of them. But all in all, faced with not being able to trace ones paternal genealogy, or not existing at all, I think most people would go for the former.

      • Theobald Wallingford

        Actually, the incest issue is a problem. I know children born of donor insemination who knew each other independently before they found out they had the same father. It’s not simply a case of probabilities.

        • Lee Moore

          It’s still a matter of probabilities. The odds of mating with a half brother / sister obviously increase, the more people are born as a result of sperm donation (assuming sperm donors father multiple children as they do.) Now there’s something like a thousand AI births a year. And the odds of knowing your half brother / half sister are obviously far greater than the odds of mating with them. Cos you know far more people than you mate with.

          What would make it not a matter of (these) probabilities would be if the mothers were not “independent” of each other. ie if mother A goes to Doc Wright’s clinic and gets a child courtesy of Derek, and then goes to friend B, who she knows is also in an unfortunate war widow situation and says “you should go to Doc Wright.” Then the probabilities of children of the same father knowing each other increase substantially. But then the mothers also know that they might need to keep their kids from mating. (Not something that parents always succeed at of course.)

          • Theobald Wallingford

            Well, these 496 mothers were not independent. They probably lived in the same city (or close to it), all had similar mentalities, all knew the same woman, probably knew each other since the availability of the service spread by word of mouth.

            Anyhow, incest is the secondary issue here. Remote parenting and lack of responsibility and truth-telling is probably foremost here.

          • Lee Moore

            If the “city” had been Moreton-in-the-Marsh, you’d have a fair point. But London ? Also, if the war had been the one in Afghanistan, where there might well be widow support groups in towns where the army is based, then there would be good odds on some of the widows knowing each other. But we’re talking about the Great War and a conscripted army. As you (and I) said – the main possibility comes from word of mouth, but unless Doc Wright kept records indicating whether her patients accrued that way, we’re just speculating.

      • george

        Depends on the value we give to existing. If the children had not been born, they wouldn’t be anywhere to regret their non-existence (obviously — but people don’t always think rationally about existential questions). Also, much of happiness in life — and healthy people want happiness not mere existence — depends on how well one is ‘set up’ by early circumstances. To be poorly set up (for instance, by coming from a miserable home, whatever contributes to the misery) is to suffer existence more than to enjoy it, sometimes into adulthood. And then, every being that is given the gift of life must endure suffering, and fear and await his ineluctable death. I’ve watched someone die: there is clearly a price to be paid for living. Life is not an unmixed blessing, except perhaps for the very lucky few.

        • Lee Moore

          Up to a point Lord Copper. Theobald was framing his regrets from the point of view of the children in question. And despite what you say, most people set quite a high value on their own existence (whether they think about it rationally or not, most people do not deliberately or recklessly cast away their lives.) And generally even if rich people from the future look back and say to themselves “Ugh I’d have hated that existence” mostly the people didn’t think that at the time. From the modern world there are plenty of studies showing that people in countries that are characterised by grinding poverty are roughly as happy as people in rich countries.

          In any event, given his disapproval of abortion, I doubt that Theobald would share the view that most people would be better off dead.

          • george

            Who is Lord Copper? Life is a troubling place for the sensitive, the thoughtful, and the gentle. Only a barbarian would deny it.

          • Lee Moore

            Lord Copper is one of Evelyn Waugh’s characters – the owner of the Daily Beast, a fictional newspaper baron of the Northcliffe/Beaverbrook type who appears in Scoop, and who certainly merits the description “barbarian.” He has an underling who is too terrified ever to say “No” to him. So he says “Up to a point, Lord Copper” instead.

            If you are a sensitive, thoughtful and gentle type you will enjoy the adventures of William Boot, the Daily Beast’s countryside correspondent, sent (accidentally) by Lord Copper to cover an African war.

          • george

            You’ve never once said ‘I wish I’d never been born?’ I have. And I’m not alone in that. Even as a Westerner, with all the boons of the free world.

          • Lee Moore

            No, but over the years I’ve had that thought about one or two other people.

          • george

            Well, you’re a lucky chap (or chappess), then. But don’t mistake your good fortune for others’.

    • Bronwyn Beesley

      He, Derek, may not have taken responsibility for the resulting child, however how about the Mother and incapacitated father. He was required to give consent, as today, the sperm donor and receiver do.
      Most taboos are lifted for good reason.

  • Hugh Jampton

    Edward Douglas Money

    • Bronwyn Beesley

      ED Money was my 2nd cousin twice removed his son is still living

  • jelliedeels

    Between 1914 and 1918 one million Englishmen were killed in France and Belgium.

    so thatS THE Scots ,Irish and welsh written out of first world war history