How a Toronto woman discovered she has up to 600 half-siblings
DNA test reveals link to fertility clinic that likely used same donor hundreds of times from 1940s to 1960s
In 2013, Simon Smith spat into a vial and sent it off to DNA analysis service 23andMe to hopefully learn more about his family history.
"I thought the technology was cool and I wanted to find out more about my biology and then take any necessary actions related to my health," he said.
That DNA test ended up revealing far more than he bargained for.
It set his family down a three-year path to discovering that their genetic origins were connected to a pioneering fertility clinic in London, England, during the Second World War. It was run by Dr. Mary Barton and her husband, Bertold Wiesner, who died in 1991 and 1972 respectively.
Wiesner clandestinely provided his own sperm to many of their clients, and is believed to be linked to up to 600 children born over the span of about two decades — including Simon's mother, Adrianne Smith.
Now Adrianne communicates regularly with several of her extended family of half-siblings, who collectively refer to themselves as "halfies." Some of them, Adrianne included, have been calling for reforms to Canada's reproductive laws so that people conceived through the use of donated material can obtain more information about their donors.
'It seemed totally implausible'
When Simon submitted his DNA test, he checked a box that allowed people who discovered they are related to him to contact him.
He received dozens of messages from supposed fourth-cousins, but eventually stopped opening them because he couldn't possibly keep up.
But then in December 2014, Simon received an email from Lyssa McGowan, a woman living in England who claimed to be his first cousin.
No one else in his family had ever heard of McGowan, but some of her story seemed unusually familiar. The DNA tests revealed both Simon and McGowan were predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish. Both Adrianne and McGowan's mother, Caryl Blumenthal, were born in the U.K.
McGowan said her mother was born through an assisted fertility program. But that didn't seem possible in Adrianne's case.
Her parents were Louis and Millicent Pitt. Louis asked Millicent on a date the night they met in London in 1934, and they married two years later. Millicent was a seamstress; Louis was a tailor. He died in his sixties after his third heart attack.
That Louis might have had a secret affair seemed "totally implausible," said journalist Leora Smith, Simon's sister.
"A secret family in England? You can't help your mind going there," she said. "But with a love story like my grandparents'?"
Given Pitt's poor health, it didn't make sense for him to be recruited as a sperm donor, either.
Simon emailed back and forth with McGowan's family for months before Adrianne finally wrote to Blumenthal. Her email was a mix of emotions, family history, puns, and questions.
"I wasn't distressed. But I did feel intensely curious," said Adrianne, 75, who lives in Toronto. "And I did want to know more."
Within hours of receiving the email, Blumenthal responded in kind. The two became fast friends.
The search for 'Bio Dad'
During their conversations, Blumenthal remembered the name Barton — though she wasn't sure who or what it signified.
Then in early 2015, Adrianne's daughter Louise found a documentary about Mary Barton, who ran a fertility clinic with multiple offices in London from the 1940s to 1960s with her husband Bertold Wiesner.
Filmmaker Barry Stevens had spent years trying to identify his own biological father, which led him to Barton and Wiesner's clinic in London.
To test out a theory, he tracked down the couple's son and asked if he would take a DNA test. The test revealed they were half-brothers.
Over time, Stevens, 68, found that Wiesner was genetically linked to up to 600 children connectd to the clinic. He documented his journey in two films, Offspring and Bio-Dad.
Barton and Wiesner said they gathered donors from middle-class professionals such as policemen and journalists, according to Stevens. But it is believed that Wiesner himself supplied the sperm for roughly two-thirds of their clinic's cases.
WATCH | Barry Stevens describes his quest to track down his half-siblings. World's Biggest Family airs on CBC Docs Oct. 1:
'This is playing with nature'
Stevens spoke to a handful of women who met Barton — and they all recall her telling them to keep the procedure a secret.
They had good reason to do so. In 1945, Barton and Wiesner caused an uproar when the British Medical Journal published an article they wrote about their work.
"There were inquiries. They [British parliament] were talking about criminalizing [artificial insemination]. This is adultery. This is awful. This is playing with nature," said Stevens.
In 1948, a religious commission put together by the Archbishop of Canterbury concluded artificial insemination was a "breach of marriage" and "wrong in principle and contrary to Christian standards."
In 1958, a House of Lords committee said donor-conceived children should be considered "illegitimate" and framed artificial insemination with donor sperm as an "offence against society."
Stevens wasn't sure whether Barton knew her husband was donating most of the sperm —but if she did, it was all the more reason to demand secrecy.
Adrianne's family reached out to Stevens. It turned out he lived just a 20-minute drive away. The two met in the spring of 2016 and took more DNA tests. They revealed that Adrianne and Stevens — and, by extension, Caryl Blumenthal — were half-siblings.
Bertold Wiesner was Adrianne's biological father.
"That's how I found out for sure," she said. "I was not related to my dad."
The revelation raised a pile of new questions for Adrianne. How did her parents learn about the fertility clinic? Did they go more than once? Was her mother apprehensive at all, considering how taboo the process was at the time?
But her feelings about the father who raised her never changed.
"If he knew that I was donor-conceived, he didn't love me any less for that," she said. "I couldn't replace the love that I'd always felt from him. Why would I want to lose that?"
In the last five years, Adrianne has found more than 40 half-siblings ranging in age from their 50s to 70s. She said there's often a bump in new connections after Christmas — many people get DNA tests as gifts.
They keep in touch over email, and have developed a protocol for welcoming new people. Some who hear the story are excited and join the group. Others never respond.
Geraldine, Adrianne's only sister growing up, is among those who have no interest in taking a DNA test of her own,
"I was shocked that she referred to them as her brothers and sisters," Geraldine said of Adrianne's relationship with the "halfies" clan.
"It made me feel a bit betrayed. You know, I was her sister. Nobody else."
Geraldine is certain she's the daughter of the man she always knew as her father.
"The truth is that she and my cousins do look a lot like him," Leora said. "For her, that's enough."
The right to your 'genetic identity'
After discovering that she might have been among the first donor-conceived children in England, Adrianne is now part of a growing political movement.
She's plugged into the Donor-Conceived Alliance of Canada, which advocates for a ban on anonymous sperm and egg donations, and is calling for the long-term preservation of donor medical records.
Last year, Canada updated its regulations on assisted reproduction. Now, donors have to answer a questionnaire about their health — but the information is only required to be preserved for 10 years.
That means a donor-conceived child, or their parents, would need to request that health history by the time they are 10 years old.
Adrianne was never supposed to know her biological father's identity. But to her, having these answers and finding her half-siblings has been overwhelmingly joyful.
She's not ashamed of what she learned about her origins, and doesn't begrudge her parents for not telling her. But she would have liked it if she were able to talk to them about it.
"I would love to be able to say, 'It worked out. We're OK, you know, you did a good thing.'"
Written by Jonathan Ore. The radio documentary "Inconceivable" was produced by Leora Smith and Alison Cook.