She knows the kind of Children you’ll have
By probing into your family tree Dr. Norma Walker can tell why some people go bald, why some children aren’t normal and why some parents shouldn’t have children at all. Here’s the background story of a new profession that digs up age-old secrets to save untold heartaches
IS MY baby normal?” This is the first question most mothers ask about a new-born infant. Sometimes the answer has to be a heartbreaking “No.” There are at least five hundred physical and mental defects that parents can pass on to their children.
To help people avoid the tragedy of a defective child a new profession has been born—that of the heredity counselor. He is a man to whom couples, worried by some physical flaw in their family background, can go with the question: “Can we have a normal and healthy child?” To answer this the counselor must combine the skills of a scientist, mathematician and detective. Even then he can’t be sure, for many of the details about human heredity are still shrouded in mystery.
Heredity counselors belong to the most exclusive professional group in North America. There are only ten of them. One is Dr. Norma
Ford Walker, a handsome sixty-year-old University of Toronto professor who heads the genetics department of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
Dr. Walker’s hospital office is the scene of many dramatic interviews. A healthy young couple came to see her, still numbed by the news that their first child was born an idiot with an abnormally small head. “He’s like a gnome— hardly human,” said the wife, who was on the verge of walking out on her marriage. “If this is what God thinks of our marriage we should get a divorce,” she sobbed. After probing into the couple’s family health history for three generations, Dr. Walker told them, “You are equally responsible for the child. You are both carriers of recessive genes. You’ll always run a one-infour chance of having an abnormal child.”
Two years later the woman told Dr. Walker, “You cleared the air for us. Our marriage is getting along fine. We’ve adopted a wonderful child.”
An accountant and his wife wanted to knew whether to risk having another child. Their ten-year-old daughter was healthy but their seven-year-old boy was a “bleeder.” He had hemophilia. The slightest blow or scratch would hospitalize him instantly. Dr. Walker began to interview relatives, write letters to others and search hospital records.
She knew there were two possible explanations for the youngster’s condition. He could have inherited it from his parents, or—as sometimes happens by a quirk of nature—a hemophilia gene might have suddenly evolved in the hoy. This process is known as mutation. Dr. Walker’s hottest clue came from the client’s aunt. “My son died twenty years ago just after his seventh birthday,” the aunt told her. “They weren’t quite sure what he died from ” Dr. Walker studied the records of the hospital where the child had died. They revealed, beyond a doubt, that hemophilia caused the death. The evidence clearly indicated that the ailment of the accountant’s son was inherited.
“If your next child is a girl,” Dr. Waller explained to the accountant, “she would probably be normal. Girls rarely suffer with hemophilia. But if it’s a boy, then there’s a fifty-fifty chance he would be a ‘bleeder.’
A woman from northern Ontario once told Dr. Walker: “They’re gossiping about us. They say we’ve got Negro blood.” She explained that her husband and two of her five children had woolly hair. Again the heredity counselor embarked on a search of the past. “In about one out of every million births,” explains Dr. Walker, “it happens that parents with straight hair give birth to a child with woolly hair.” Again, the cause was either due to inheritance or mutation. Dr. Walker made enquiries among the father’s family who all lived in Europe. She finally unearthed a grandmother in central Europe who had this unusual type of hair. The client was overjoyed. “1 can’t wait till I get home and tell the neighbors what you’ve found,” she said to the doctor.
Actually, Dr. Walker didn’t share her client’s aversion to mixed blood. “Someday,” she says, “people of different colors will marry freely. As a geneticist, I’m cheerful about it. New combinations produce better stock.”
Like other heredity counselors, Dr. Walker has had no formal training in her profession. As she says, “It’s so new you just had to grow up with it.” She wrote her doctor’s thesis on insects hut later she found people more interesting. “Heredity counseling is a natural field for a woman,” she says. “It’s normal for her to be interested in babies, families and health.”
Counselors like Dr. Walker constantly have to combat the thousands of myths about human heredity. Most of these myths stress the importance of what happens to the mother during pregnancy. One mother told Dr. Walker, “I saw a rabbit; that’s why my daughter was born with a hare lip.” It was because of this superstition that, up until forty years ago, Norwegian butcher stores displaying hares were required by law to lop off their mouths.
Not long ago blotchy, red birthmarks were commonly blamed on strawberries eaten by the mother; brown ones on coffee she spilled on herself. If the
blemish were shaped like a bottle, the mother had watched someone drinking out of a bottle. Was the child born with a monstrous head? Then the mother had gone to a circus and seen strange animals. An artistic child resulted from the mother reading good books and going to concerts. The mother could produce an idealistic youngster by thinking fine thoughts. The sex of the offspring could be influenced by the mother’s diet. In earlier times, when a son was des perately wanted, the mother was often fed a potion made up of rooster wattles, the head of an eagle, the heart blood of a lion and the testes of a bull.
Science’s reply to the black-magic school of genetic study was formulated one hundred years ago by a plump Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel. He kept careful records of the numerous plantings of peas he raised in the monastery garden. After many years he set down a few simple laws about how characteristics are passed along from generation to generation. Mendel’s principles were later tested by many scientists who studied both animals and humans. The facts now commonly accepted can be summed up as follows:
A new life begins when a male sperm enters a female egg. The sperm and the egg each contain twenty-four chromosomes. It is the 48-chromosome cell they form upon their union that contains everything the new person is going to be. This single cell starts to multiply and forms blood, muscle, bone and tissue until a completely new person is created.
Chinese Bind Their Feet
Under a powerful microscope, a chromosome has the appearance of a long narrow filament made up of gelatinous beads. These house the genes and there are thousands of them in every chromosome. Each pair of genes—one from the mother and the other from the father—is in part responsible for some feature of the new person, such as hair or eye color, body shape, life expectancy and health.
Each man or woman passes on the same collection of genes and chromosomes that he or she received from his or her parents. Genes remain unchanged from generation to generation. There are a few notable exceptions. X-rays or atomic rays can modify them. Or sometimes, for mysterious reasons, a change takes place within the individual.
No trait acquired by a man or woman during his or her own lifetime can be passed on to that person’s children. For centuries the Hebrews have circumcised their children; the Ghinese women have bound their feet; certain African native tribes have distorted their faces. Yet none of these customs altered the appearance of later generations. Genes are sealed in. They can’t be tampered with.
What exactly is a gene? It is a complex molecule or collection of molecules. Each pair does a special job. But each individual gene making up the pair has its own personality. Some are strong and dominant; others are weak and recessive. Some genes are constructive, others are destructive. The way that your genes are paired up helps to determine the kind of person you are both mentally and physically. In eye color, for example, the hlackor brown-eye gene is stronger than the hlue-eye gene. Therefore, a child who inherits a pair of genes made up of these two colors will have dark eyes. In nose shapes, the prominentnose gene dominates the rather moderately shaped nose; broad nostrils dominate narrow ones; long eyelashes dominate short ones, and so on.
Some genes carry disease and physical defects. Heredity counselors call them black genes. Here too some are dominant, some recessive. If both parents have a dominant black gene, three quarters of their children will probably inherit the disease it carries. If one parent has a dominant black gene, probably half the children will be affected. The conditions passed on by dominant black genes include certain kinds of anemia and blindness and Huntington’s Chorea—a serious form of mental illness.
There is another kind of black gene, the récessives. These are not as strong as the dominants and may lie undetected, generation after generation. But, as Dr. Walker says, “A hundred years isn’t very long to a geneticist.” The man or woman carrying the recessive gene is not necessarily affected by a disease or defect. But if he or she should marry someone with the same recessive gene, there’s a good chance the couple will pass on to their offspring conditions such as diabetes, some types of idiocy and mental defectiveness. “That’s why we frown on cousin marriages,” says Dr. Walker. “People who are related are more likely to have the same kind of genes.”
There is one hlack gene well known to every heredity counselor—the sexlinked gene. These plague men while virtually ignoring women. “Men come off second best when it comes to heredity,” says Dr. Walker. Male children come into the world with more defects than female. Hemophilia and color blindness are only two of the susceptibilities men inherit and women usually escape. Dr. Walker sometimes quotes the advice allegedly given by a European specialist who said: “To
avoid baldness, choose your parents and your sex carefully.”
Family Stories in Bibles
To make his forecasts, the heredity counselor prepares a chart for each client. He calls this a pedigree; it lists all the client’s afflictions and infirmities as well as those of preceding generations. He goes as far back as possible. Women, Dr. Walker has found, are the counselors’ best friends. “They have a natural bent for remembering births, marriages, deaths, operations, sicknesses and abortions. All that’s grist for my mill.”
Dr. Walker deplores the practice of many hospitals that burn their records every twenty-five years. “They make our job a lot tougher,” she says. Dr. Walker has a warm place in her heart for old Scottish families who keep family Bibles recording a mine of health information for as much as a hundred and fifty years. The records of Roman Catholic parishes are also valuable.
Recently Dr. Walker was asked to explain why so many male Indians of Manitoulin Island went blind. She managed to get hold of the documents recording the payment of treaty money for the past hundred years. In these records, for purposes of identification, was a description of the physical peculiarities of every Indian. Dr. Walker was able to track down the affliction to an Indian who had died in 1881 after being married three times. His second and third wives were sisters and another sister was blind. For the next five generations there were blind males. “It was an inherited condition which prevented the eye from developing properly,” explains Dr. Walker. “The females carried the black gene and the men lost their sight.”
Never as a result of Dr. Walker’s guidance have a couple intending marriage changed their plans but they have
afl entered marriage with a clearer understanding of the chances involved. Not long ago she received a phone call from a minister. “Two of my young people want to get married,” he said. “They’re cousins. Will you speak to them about it?”
Dr. Walker never passes up such an opportunity. “Consanguineous marriages (i.e. marriage of blood relatives) should be discouraged,” she says. “They’re dangerous. If cousins knew the facts about inheritance, they wouldn’t fall in love with each other.” Dr. Walker can point to the large number of defective offspring from such a union. The alhino is one example. Due to a chemical abnormality in the body, the albino has pink eyes, white hair and unnaturally fair skin. Albinism is a rare condition yet twenty percent of all albinos are the offspring of cousin marriages. Amaurotic idiocy—another rare condition —is thirty times as frequent in consanguineous marriages as in normal ones. So are blindness, dwarfism and feeble-mindedness.
In 1918 a study was made of all living members of the royal family descended from Louis VIII of France. Almost half were schizophrenic. Queen Victoria was the first member of the royal families of Europe known to be a carrier of hemophilia. Within a few generations, through intermarriage, this condition was plaguing the royal houses of Spain, Germany and Russia. Rasputin was able to gain political power because of his supposed ability to stem the bleeding of the young Prince Alexis of the Romanov dynasty. When the son of ex-king Alfonso of Spain was in a minor automobile accident in Miami, in 1938, he bled to death.
Society has long been aware that the marriage of blood relatives is undesirable. However, in most modern countries, the law does not prohibit marriage between first cousins although it does prohibit closer unions such as uncle and niece. The Roman CatholicChurch refuses to sanction cousin marriages without a special dispensation.
Dr. Walker feels that marriage among blood relatives is on the wane in Canada. “People get around more and families are smaller,” she explains. Some exceptions are in isolated rural areas. As for the reason for cousin marriages, Dr. Walker points to a young French-Canadian girl who was a patient in the Hospital for Sick Children not long ago. “In the region where she lived,” she says, “this child could count up seventy-four first cousins, half of them men. Is it any wonder that consanguineous marriages do take place?”
Good qualities, along with defects, can be magnified when relatives marry, and it is not surprising that some of the children of such marriages should be exceptionally gifted. Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born of cousin marriages. Cleopatra was the end product of six generations of brother-sister matches. The ancient Egyptians felt that only royal blood was worthy of royal blood.
In addition to advice on cousin marriages, Dr. Walker is often asked for guidance on interracial marriage. A white person about to marry a lightskinned Negro wants to know, “Will our baby be jet black?” Dr. Walker folds that “the black baby” myth is the most persistent of all myths in the field of heredity. “If only one parent has some Negro blood it’s impossible for the child to be darker than that parent. And the chances are he’ll be lighter.” Furthermore, with each generation, the color will show less. Dr. Walker says, “When you hear reports of a white mother mysteriously giving birth to a Chinese or Negro baby, when the father is allegedly white, you can be sure somebody is not telling the truth.” Dr. Walker finds it difficult to understand the strong prejudice held hy many people against interracial marriage. “As a geneticist, I regard the color of skin as unimportant,” she says. “Furthermore, the theory that different races are repelled by each other is a lot of nonsense. Look at the Hawaiian Islands. The various races there freely intermarry. By and large, their children are healthy, vigorous and intelligent.”
Dr. Walker is sometimes concerned by Canadian marrying habits. “Our men seem too often to place all the emphasis on sexual charm when they’re choosing a bride. That’s not sound from a genetic point of view.” The man places a premium on the woman with a slim figure, neat ankles, small feet, neat regular teeth and a vivacious personality. “Actually,” says Dr. Walker, “a woman doesn’t have to be a beauty-contest winner to produce excellent children.” She maintains that what really count in motherhood are broad hips, large limbs, big feet, a high IQ and a serious nature.
But if a woman’s sexual charm is of no special interest to the heredity counselor, her age definitely is. “I advise women to get married and have children when they’re twenty-two,” says Dr. Walker. “Professional women should have their children first, then work at a career.” This advice is based on recent research showing that the older the mother, the higher the incidence of defectiveness in her children. Some forty percent of all Mongoloid idiots, for example, are born to women over forty. Even more revealing are the results obtained by Dr. Albert Lansing of the Washington University School of Medicine. Dr. Lansing bred large numbers of rotifers—a tiny water insect. Here’s what he found:
A group of young mothers (five days old) produced a healthy batch of youngsters, which in turn gave birth. Dr. Lansing stopped keeping track of them after fifty-four generations.
A group of middle-aged mothers (eight days old) gave birth to offspring, which stopped reproducing themselves after eight generations.
A group of old mothers (eleven days old) produced offspring which petered out in only three generations.
What is the significance of all this to human beings? Dr. Walker points to a study recently completed at the University of Pennsylvania. There were 466 families involved—with both normal and defective children. The average age of the mother at the time of her marriage was 21. The first normal child was born when the mother’s age was 23. The first defective child was born when she was almost 29.
One Child Was Born Blind
Another study involved 570 mothers. When the mother’s age was between fifteen and 29 only one child in a hundred births was defective. But at thirty the proportion of defective children started going up. When the birth took place in the 45-49-year-old age group, the proportion of defective to normal children was three times as great as when the mother was under thirty. “All this seems to suggest that if you want to be born intact, make sure you have a young mother,” comments Dr. Walker.
Early motherhood is one of the few subjects on which Dr. Walker will give definite advice. “My job is to give information, not force my ideas on anyone,” she says. An example was the couple in their late twenties whose only child was born blind. “They wanted a normal youngster,” says Dr. Walker. “I felt it would be damaging to their ego not to have at least one.” The counselor gave them the odds on the defect occurring in the next child —one chance in four. She also mentioned that there was such a thing as being overcautious. “Don’t hesitate to take a chance as long as your decision is based on all the facts.”
A year later the couple were back to show Dr. Walker their healthy youngster and to ask about the wisdom of having still another child. “I told them to do as they wished but that there was such a thing as tempting fate,” Dr. Walker recalls.
Dr. Walker feels that even if her client takes long chances after getting advice and, as a result, has a defective child, the advice has still been of value. “If you expect a blow you can roll with it,” she says. “It’s the unexpected blow that causes trouble.” One client, a woman, was a chondrodystrophic dwarf, just over four feet tall with a saucer-shaped face. She and her husband were deeply shocked when their first child was also a dwarf. It created a crisis in their marriage. “I told them there’s a fifty-percent chance that any future children might also be dwarfs,” said Dr. Walker. “They may try for another child. They may be disappointed but they won’t panic the way they did last time.”
The heredity counselor is a cautious person. “We’ve got to go slow and be careful in what we say,” says Dr. Walker. “The science of human genetics is still in its infancy.” The influence of heredity in conditions such as tuberculosis, goiter, nephritis, ulcer and appendicitis, has yet to be established.
Even in the major “killers” the influence of inheritance is in doubt. We know that a few rare forms of cancer can be inherited. We know, too, that by inbreeding it is possible to produce mice who develop cancer of the lung or breast or skin as they mature. Rut the data collected on the common forms of cancer are not particularly revealing.
The heredity counselor is even more vague about the inheritance of heart and blood-vessel diseases. A person appears to inherit the predisposition to these ailments. “But it seems that he will only be afflicted if conditions are right for it,” says Dr. Walker.
Diabetes is one of the few common major illnesses which in some families are inherited through a pair of recessive genes—one from the father, the other from the mother. But the inheritance of these two genes doesn’t mean that the disease will show itself immediately. Often, the individual will go on enjoying good health for many years. The point at which the diabetes shows itself will be largely determined by the individual’s health habits. Thus, whenever a family pedigree shows a sprinkling of diabetes, Dr. Walker advises the parents: “Watch your children’s diet.” Don’t let them put on extra weight. And take them to the doctor often for physical examinations.”
One geneticist reports the case of a sixty-year-old man who died from a form of anemia known to be inherited by half the offspring in his family. Sure enough, when his four grown sons were examined two showed early symptoms of the illness. “It would be wise to have your spleen removed,” the doctor advised them. One followed the advice, and after recovering from his operation enjoyed good health. The other laughed at the suggestion. “I’m as fit as a fiddle,” he said. A few years later he became seriously stricken with the same type of anemia that had killed his father. His weakened condition at this stage made surgery impossible. He died.
The heredity counselor knows that forecasting mental illness is hazardous. It has been known for some time that both environment and heredity play an important role in producing mental diseases, but what is the relative importance of each?
Today’s thinking on schizophrenia, says Dr. Walker, can be summed up as follows: “Schizophrenia may be
inherited by black genes. But it may not. If it is inherited, the carrier of
the genes may not break down unless there’s unusual strain in his environment.” In another form of mental illness—manic depression—heredity is considered by some geneticists to be more important than environment.
One very rare type of mental illness that the heredity counselor can discuss with more certainty is Huntington’s Chorea. If a parent has this disease, each of his children has a fifty-percent chance of getting it. This cruel and sly affliction doesn’t show itself until the victim is around thirty-five. By then he’s probably married and has children of his own. His speech, movements and power to think rapidly deteriorate. The stigma of this disease is so great that some members of families that have it sometimes move away and change their name. This makes it difficult for the heredity counselor to track down the disease, although the ancestry of one victim has been traced back to an immigrant who arrived at Boston from Suffolk, England, in 1630. The disease has continued in an unbroken line for more than three hundred years through twelve generations.
Doctors, as well as geneticists, carefully distinguish between those who are mentally ill and those who are mentally defective. In the defective group, at the top of the scale, are the morons with an IQ 50-69 (the normal IQ is 90-110); trailing with an IQ of 0-49 are a variety of imbeciles and idiots.
Dr. Walker has some statistics that indicate that moronity is inherited. Recent studies show that about twelve percent of morons apparently get the affliction from moronic or imbecilic parents; fifteen to twenty percent are brain injured; many are drawn from the poorer classes.
Can You Be a Born Drinker?
Perhaps the most tragic cases Dr. Walker has to deal with involve imbecile and idiot children. These include a variety of conditions: Mongolian
idiocy (slanting eyes, misshapen forehead, guttural voice); the microcéphalie (“pinhead” type); hydrocephalic (“water head”) and so on. These children are usually physically as well as mentally defective. Their condition is due to a variety of causes during prenatal development. But there is also good reason to believe that heredity also plays a role. In Mongolian idiocy, for instance, whenever an identical twin is born with this condition the other twin is invariably the same.
The heredity counselor is sometimes asked questions like this: “My fiancee’s father is an alcoholic. Can this condition be inherited?” The counselor can be reassuring on the subject of alcoholism. It is true that the alcoholic’s home is often disturbed and disorganized and not a healthy environment for children. But there is no proof that overindulgence damages the alcoholic’s sperm, thus producing defective children. Furthermore, his ability to have children remains intact. Indeed, the alcoholic usually has a bigger family than the sensible drinker in the same social class.
A striking demonstration of this facet of alcoholism was recently given in New York. Sixty young children were placed out for adoption in uppermiddle-class homes. Half had parents who were alcoholics and criminals; the other half had normal parents. Tested twenty-five years later, the two groups showed little or no difference with regard to the success of their marriages, size of families, drinking habits and criminality.
The heredity counselor has a deep interest in eugenics—improving the vigor of the human race. Genetic principles have been used with spectacular success to improve animal stock Yet, as many geneticists have pointed out, we haven’t done the same for human beings. It’s as though a rancher who wanted to improve his stock gave each bull a completely free hand in selecting his mate; allowed all cows to reproduce regardless of their condition; kept a bull with the same mate ell his lifetime, and gave the weak and deformed calves special care so they could reproduce. This roughly is the present state of eugenical affairs among humans, Dr. Walker observes wryly. She’s reluctant to advocate a change through compulsory measures. “It’s a free country,” she says. “People should be allowed to have children if they want to.”
Midern medicine, it can be argued from a eugenical point of view, is also weakening the human race. Miracle drugs and new surgical techniques have all but abolished nature’s law of the “survival of the fittest.” The weak and the unfit, who in previous times rniglri have died, now live and reproduce. Often their children are either defective or carry black genes.
Diabetes is an example. Before the use of insulin in 1922 few diabetic women reached the age for childbirth. The diabetic mother who became pregnant would almost certainly die with her child at birth. But today some large hospitals have diabetic-obstetric clinics in spite of the fact that nature constantly shouts at the diabetic woman, “Don’t have a baby!” The diabetic mother has only a 65-percent chance of having a live child. Many of the children will grow up and have diabetes or carry around the diabeticgene AS an inheritance for their children.
Surgery saves children with defective hearts, women in childbirth with misshapen pelvis, people with cancerous growths. Our so-called miracle drugs keep alive the weakest and frailest members of the human race. If these people have children they are almost certain to be carriers of black genes.
Among the solutions that have been offered for maintaining the unit y of the family in cases of childless marriages is artificial insemination. While it may have value in certain cases, Dr. Walker urges caution. “One donor may have one hundred children or more,” she says. “How do we know two of them won’t marry each other when they grow up?” Again, from the practical point of view, the anonymity of the donor would make it impossible for the heredity counselor to work up a pedigree if the need ever arose.
Sterilization of the “unfit” has often been suggested. In Alberta, the only Canadian province where sterilization is practiced, 1,175 men and women have been deprived by surgery of the ability to have children in the past twenty years. Dr. Walker is not a wholehearted supporter of this. “The Nazis in Germany misused sterilization and gave it a bad name,” she says. She feels that if the sterilization operation were made available easily many men and women would ask for it and then regret having done so.
One of the strongest arguments against eugenical sterilization is that many outstanding men have arisen from “poor” stock: Lincoln, Keats,
Franklin, Faraday, Schubert, Beethoven, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy, Michelangelo, Dostoievski and Poe. When this apparent contradiction is brought to Dr. Walker’s attention she points out that each person represents a new combination of genes —a combination which may or may not work. “ ‘From shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves every third generation’ is an old wives’ tale which has stood the test of time,” she says. ★