The Sunday Magazine

The murky history of paternity testing, from celebrity scandals to Nazi Germany to the U.S.-Mexico border

Before DNA could identify fathers definitively, people resorted to all kinds of techniques, including measuring the shape of ears. The results could shape - or end - lives. Nara Milanich is a professor at Barnard College who has investigated what she calls "the elusive quest for the father.”
Historian Nara B. Milanich's new book explores the origins and consequences of paternity testing. (Submitted by Nara Milanich, Harvard University Press)

In an era of cheap, commercially-available DNA testing, stories about secrecy and revelation are everywhere. 

But long before scientists discovered accurate methods of establishing family links, paternity tests still had the power to re-unite or divide families or cause people to question their identities.

They could even influence whether someone lived or died. 

In her book Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father, Nara Milanich delves into the murky history of paternity testing. It's a story that took her from a celebrity court case against Charlie Chaplin to Nazi Germany to the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year.

Blood 'vibrations' and the shapes of ears

Cases of uncertain paternity were once considered unsolvable, and paternity was seen as more of a social relationship than a biological one, Milanich told The Sunday Edition's guest host Gillian Findlay. 

In the 1920s and 30s, people became fascinated with the idea that paternity was a biological truth science could uncover. 

Many of the earliest paternity tests seem preposterous today. A man named Albert Abrams invented a device called an "oscillophore," which he claimed could determine paternity by measuring the vibrations of blood. Others compared the shape of ears or even exhumed dead bodies to establish a link. These tests were used in court cases involving suspected infidelity, contested inheritances or babies swapped at birth. 

In the 1930s and 40s, Brazilian dentist Luiz Silva analyzed teeth, jaw and facial features to determine paternity. (Reproduced from João Maringoni, Emilio Viégas, and Raul Marques Negreiros, Um caso de investigação de paternidade [São Paulo: Revista dos Tribunais, 1940]: 53, 57, 54)

In a 1940s court case, actress Joan Barry accused Charlie Chaplin of fathering her child, Carol Ann. After the jury heard evidence about their romantic relationship, Chaplin's lawyers called three doctors to present blood type evidence. 

"They find that mom is type A blood, baby Carol Ann is type B blood, and Charlie Chaplin is type O blood ... An O father and A mother cannot produce a B child," said Milanich. 

In a 1940s court case, American actress Joan Barry (L) accused Charlie Chaplin (R) of fathering her baby Carol Ann. (Keystone/Stringer; Henry Guttmann Collection/Stringer)

But the jury still ruled that Chaplin was Carol Ann's father. 

"The court erupts in in chaos, cheers and groans. Scientific observers are appalled. 'The state of California has declared black is white and white is black and up is down,'" said Milanich. 

Although society was beginning to understand paternity as a biological relationship, the jury was still working with a social definition based on the relationship between Barry and Chaplin, she explained. 

"It's also a disciplinary definition of paternity. Here was this infamous man, who had this reputation of seducing young women. At one point Joan Barry's lawyer says, 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you can accept the blood group type tests and give this guy a pass  ... or you can put a stop to this scandalous behaviour.' So that's what the jury did."

Early men's rights and feminist groups both championed paternity testing — for opposing reasons.

"There are men's groups in Vienna in the 1920s that say, 'Modern women are a threat to men, they're promiscuous, they're unreliable, and [we need] to make paternity tests available so we can know who they're sleeping with,'" Milanich said. 

Women's groups pushed for expanded access to paternity tests to compel men to share responsibility for their children. They wanted to challenge the archaic idea that a "fallen woman … after bearing a child out of wedlock, has to bear the burden of that stigma for the rest of her life, and the man gets a free pass," she said. 

Milanich, a historian of gender, family and sexuality, expected her research to expose changing ideas about gender. But she didn't expect how deeply the history of paternity testing would be intertwined with questions of race. 

The earliest paternity tests emerged "at the same moment as eugenics and racial science. Very often it's emerging in the same laboratories and is being explored by the very same scientists," she said.

A matter of life and death

The link between paternity testing and racial science was most visible in Nazi Germany, where Milanich said authorities were "obsessed" with paternity and defined race in genealogical terms. 

"In order to know whether you are a Jew or a so-called Aryan, you have to know who their parents are, as well as their grandparents," she said. 

What hangs on the question of Hanns Schwarz's paternity is ... whether he and his children and his wife face life or death.- Nara Milanich

In one case, Nazi authorities investigated a man named Hanns Schwarz for a decade. He had been born to an unmarried "Aryan" mother and never knew his father.

"What hangs on the question of Hanns Schwarz's paternity is whether he's an Aryan or Jew. Whether or not he can practise as a psychiatrist, whether or not he can sit on a park bench, whether or not he wears a gold star, and whether he and his children and his wife face life or death," said Milanich. 

Some Jewish people went to court to challenge their own paternity or the paternity of their children, so they could escape deportation and death. 

"You might have a Jewish woman come forward and say, 'Actually, my Jewish husband is not the father of my children. I had an affair with the Aryan gardener, and my children are therefore only half-Jewish. This creates an opening for Jews to save themselves," she said. 

Testing by immigration authorities 

Paternity tests have also been used in immigration decisions. In the 1950s, U.S. immigration authorities tested Chinese immigrants and their family members to determine whether they were biologically related. 

"American authorities are very concerned that Chinese Communists might infiltrate the U.S. … by posing as the children of Chinese-American citizens," said Milanich. 

Genetic testing has been used to exclude, to separate and indeed to discriminate.- Nara Milanich

"The problem with this policy is that they use these biological tests only in the case of Chinese immigrants ... Chinese migrants are being held to a specifically biological kinship standard, whereas other migrants, in particular white migrants, are not."

"That is a pattern … we see today in immigration testing, where DNA has exploded," she said. 

In May 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced rapid DNA machines would be used on Central American families at the U.S.-Mexico border. In 90 minutes, the devices can compare cheek swabs and determine whether two people are related. 

A man gives children rocks to play with inside an enclosure, where they are being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 29, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

"One of the contentions of the Trump administration is that these aren't real families ... They've established the use of DNA testing in order to expose these so-called fake families," said Milanich. 

"Sometimes these tests have been used to reunify parents and children. But so often the opposite has been the case. Genetic testing has been used to exclude, to separate and indeed to discriminate."

Canada has also used DNA testing in immigration decisions. In 2018, the Canadian Border Services Agency acknowledged they had used a website called as part of an investigation for deportation.

'Not questions that science is designed to address' 

Though the technologies have changed, many of the questions and concerns driving paternity tests have remained constant. What has changed is the accuracy of the tests, and how easy they are to access. 

A technician takes a swab of a child's pacifier for DNA testing at a laboratory of Labgenetics in Madrid, 20 November 2007. The business of DNA testing is growing at a rapid rate in Spain partly thanks to its illegality in France, where DNA tests can only be obtained through a court order. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

But Milanich said they still haven't banished uncertainty from our lives — because a DNA test cannot resolve existential anxieties about identity, family, secrecy or whether our biology shapes who we are. 

"In a sense, we asked too much of the scientists. We asked them to solve social and political and existential questions about identity and who the father is," she said. "Those are not questions that science is designed to address."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.