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Who’s Your Daddy? The History of Paternity Testing

charlie chaplin, jackie coogan
A publicity still from Charlie Chaplin's 1921 film "The Kid" with Jackie Coogan. Chaplin was later taken to court by Joan Berry in the first high-profile use of blood testing in a paternity suit. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

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According to legend, the 12th-century priest St. Anthony was once approached by a distraught woman whose jealous husband was convinced that their newborn baby wasn't his, and threatened to kill them both. When Anthony visited the family, he turned to the infant and said, "Tell me child, who is your father?" Miraculously, the baby pointed toward the jealous husband, calmly replied, "That is my father," and they lived happily ever after.

You only need to watch daytime TV for five minutes to know that not all paternity tests deliver good news. The daytime talk show "Maury" is so famous for its high-drama paternity-test plotlines that it sells mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with the catchphrase "You are NOT the father!"

While maternity has always been taken for granted, for most of history, paternity was an open question. Until the advent of super-accurate DNA testing in the 1980s, there was no way to be 100-percent certain that a "baby's daddy" was in fact the biological father. But that didn't stop people from trying.

The Holy Grail of Heredity

Nara Milanich is a history professor at Barnard College and author of the new book "Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father." She says that 19th- and 20th-century scientists (and pseudo-scientists) were obsessed with unlocking the mystery of paternity and tried just about everything to discover the holy grail of heredity. Meanwhile, newspapers fueled the paternity test frenzy by closely covering sordid stories of cuckolded husbands and lecherous celebrities and their disputed progeny.

In the 1920s, for example, there was a rash of anxiety in the United States over babies allegedly being swapped in hospital maternity wards. Judges were put in the Solomon-like position of having to decide who were these babies' legitimate parents and were desperate for an objective test that could solve paternity suits once and for all.

Some researchers insisted that the ridges on the roof of the mouth contained patterns that were passed on from father to child. Others relied on the race-based pseudoscience of eugenics to create a list of physical traits like nose size, ear shape and hair texture that invariably passed from generation to generation. But the man who really captured the popular scientific imagination in the 1920s was Dr. Albert Abrams and his oscillophore.

Abrams had developed his own "scientific" theories about the human body's electrical system, which he called the "Electronic Reactions of Abrams" or ERA. Convinced, like many others, that the key to unlocking heredity was in the blood, he invented a preposterous-looking instrument called an oscillophore that purported to measure the precise electronic vibrations in drops of blood: Irish blood vibrated at 15 ohms, Jewish blood at 7 ohms, etc.

Despite the suspect and racialized science behind the oscillophore, Judge Thomas Graham of the Superior Court of San Francisco hired Abrams to determine the outcome of a high-profile paternity suit involving a man named Paul Vittori who refused to pay child support for an infant daughter he claimed was not his. Abrams' magical machine found that Vittori was indeed the father and instantly made the eccentric doctor one of the most in-demand paternity "experts" in the world.

"If we can agree that an electronic blood test is crazy and that his invention is ludicrous, why did it get so much press and why did a California judge think this was useful technology?" asks Milanich.

Paternity quacks like Abrams got so much traction, Milanich believes, because a frustrated legal system wanted a scientific panacea for solving the paternity problem. Also, American society in the 1920s was grappling with anxieties over rapidly changing gender roles and a new female sexual independence. These tests, as inaccurate as they actually were, offered the air of calm assurance.

But what's even more remarkable is what happened next. In the 1930s, scientists discovered that human blood really did contain some definitive clues to a person's parentage. It wasn't electronic vibrations, but "blood grouping" — or what we know as blood typing: A, B, AB, O, etc.

Blood grouping follows some immutable rules. For example, if a baby has type AB blood and his mother has type A blood, then the father must have B or AB blood. Finally, judges could use actual science to determine if a man could realistically be a child's father. But even science, it turns out, has limitations.

The Real Definition of "Father"

In the early 1940s, famed entertainer — and womanizer — Charlie Chaplin was taken to court in a paternity case brought by his former protege, Joan Berry. Berry was 23 and Chaplin 54, and she alleged that he was the father of her newborn baby, Carol Ann. The court case, deliriously covered in the papers, featured the first high-profile use of blood group testing in a paternity suit. And when the results came in, they conclusively showed that Chaplin could not be the father of Carol Ann.

Case closed, right? Science wins the day! Not so fast.

The jury, composed of 11 women and one man, found that Chaplin was indeed Carol Ann's father — if not biologically, then by the merit of his close relationship with her mother (and his infamous history of marrying and quickly discarding much younger women). Despite the real progress made in paternity science, the problem of paternity had somehow managed to get more complicated.

"The problem with the Chaplin suit wasn't with the test," says Milanich. "It was that people have different definitions of the father — one that's biological and one that's social. We've asked science to solve something that isn't scientific." (California law was changed in 1953 to basically say that if a paternity test showed that a man was not the father of a child, then the matter would be considered resolved. Other states followed suit.)

DNA paternity tests, which went mainstream in the 1990s, have taken all of the guesswork out of determining the identity of the biological father. Milanich says that they are 99.99-percent accurate if done right and can now be bought for around $14 at your local drug store or online (plus $130 lab fee for running the test) or even conducted in a mobile DNA testing van.

But as Milanich argues in her book, even the perfect paternity test leaves a lot of questions answered.

"Who as a society do we want fathers to be?" asks Milanich. "That's not something a geneticist can solve."

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