My great-grandfather, Bertold Wiesner, is thought to have fathered more than 600 children, putting him close to Genghis Khan in the record books.
He achieved this by donating sperm via the post-war Harley Street clinic he ran with his wife – obstetrician Mary Barton. Together, they were pioneers of artificial insemination, but their work was highly controversial, not least because they destroyed their records and instructed parents to keep quiet.
I have never met any of the myriad relations I have through that clinic. My grandmother was Wiesner’s daughter by his first marriage to playwright Anna Gmeyner, so in some senses, I’m at one remove. But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to meet some of the many members of my very extended family.
So, it was with some interest that I went to see a new play that has been written about them. Mary’s Babies at Jermyn Street Theatre imagines the stories of a handful of Wiesner’s offspring, raising questions about the ethics of his biological ‘generosity’ in the process. Although the characters are fictional, they are based on research by writer Maud Dromgoole, including testimony by those who have donor parents.
I’ve often seen plays that are, in those oft-heard words, based on real events. But when those events are your own family history, the impact can be unsettling. It was undoubtedly difficult to watch the characters (all played by Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens) dealing with the darker ramifications of Wiesner’s actions, notably with the risk of incest they created.
But, as Dromgoole herself said during a post-show Q&A, it’s important to view events in their historical context. In the days before artificial insemination was legalised and DNA testing was possible, the decision to rely on a very small pool of donors – there were others besides Wiesner – is more understandable. As was the decision to keep the work secret. But nevertheless, I find it hard to condone the burning of records, or the fact that so many children were allowed to share the same DNA. For perspective, the current legal limit for donors is six.
Kieran – one of the central characters in Mary’s Babies – embarks on a mission to find his lost relations. I well understand his desire to do so, having often felt it myself. There have been many times when a stranger with vaguely familiar facial features has prompted me to wonder whether we share a genetic link. Few people have such a number of manifestations of their own DNA walking the earth and it would be fascinating to find them all.
This is unlikely to happen in reality. The nature of events means that many of Wiesner’s descendants are destined to remain hidden, even though I understand the network is growing. But watching the play did at least allow me a brief sense of kinship with relatives I may never get to know. For that I’m thankful, even if it meant confronting some uncomfortable home truths.
Theo Bosanquet is a freelance writer and former editor of WhatsOnStage