In 1921, Mrs. Rosa Vittori filed charges in a San Francisco court against her former husband. Paul Vittori refused to pay child support for her two-month-old daughter Virginia because, he insisted, the baby was not his. It was a fairly conventional, if heated, story of domestic misery, but Paul’s refusal to recognize the baby would soon land the Vittoris in the pages of newspapers around the world.
If divorce was increasingly common, challenging a child’s legitimacy was quite a different matter. California law followed the deep-rooted legal tradition, dating back to Roman law, which declared a married man to be the father of his wife’s children. The law made it very difficult, and sometimes impossible, for a husband to challenge this “presumption of paternity,” a restriction intended to protect the rights of legitimate children and the integrity of marriage in society.
Yet rather than rest on the presumption of the law, the young lawyer rep- resenting Mrs. Vittori opted for a different, and highly unusual, approach: a blood test. Attorney Stanley F. Nolan was twenty-four years old and just a few years out of law school. His quest was unconventional, but it was also prescient. No blood test to determine parentage was yet in routine use anywhere in the world, and it is unclear what tests he had read about. But his inquiries suggest that the idea of such a test was already in circulation. What is more, it appeared credible enough that a lawyer could assume that such a procedure, though perhaps not yet widely known or routinely used, not only existed but that it could help his client.
In the 1920s, the “unmistakable record” of the father, so carefully concealed by Mother Nature, seemed poised to be unmasked. An anthropologist in Buenos Aires developed a technique based on the principles of Mendelian heredity to solve an inheritance dispute. In Russia, Austria, and Scandinavia, scientists designed paternity analyses based on physical similarity. In Berlin, a court accepted a test of paternity based on ABO blood typing. Shortly thereafter two forensic doctors in São Paulo became the first in the Western hemisphere to perform a blood group test. Hospital officials from Cleveland to Havana attempted to solve sensational cases of baby mix-ups using scientific methods. By the mid-1920s, courts in Germany and Austria began to routinely accept biological evidence in paternity disputes, and within a few years, at least 5,000 such tests had been performed. Methods based on hereditary blood groups jostled with more dubious, but often more captivating, claims that parentage could be determined through blood crystals, electronic vibrations, and light particles.
Through the newspapers, global publics followed the exciting developments occurring in laboratories and courtrooms. In the united States, readers learned about techniques of parentage determination in magazines like Popular Science Monthly and Popular Mechanics and even in detective stories. Argentines followed them in the celebrated society magazine Caras y Caretas. Readers of the Times of India learned how scientific evidence had allayed the suspicions of a doubting father in rural Nebraska. Some of the claims of fantastic scientific achievement were bona fide, others less so. The press rarely made such distinctions, and slowly the idea that science could establish a kin relation through an examination of blood and body took hold.
Two weeks after the initial hearing in Judge Graham’s court, the Vittori case took a dramatic turn. Nolan had located a specialist willing to perform the necessary test, a local doctor by the name of Albert Abrams. Dr. Abrams conducted an analysis of the blood of the three individuals, Rosa, Paul, and Virginia Vittori and announced his verdict, which he considered “absolutely conclusive.” Despite his adamant protestations, Paul Vittori was Virginia’s father. Judge Graham ordered the errant father to pay $25 a month in child support to his ex-wife and declared Abrams’s test “one of the biggest things established by medical science in years.”
The savant responsible for the startling breakthrough, Dr. Albert Abrams, was no ordinary doctor, and indeed some would say that he was not a doctor at all. To be sure, the San Francisco native had obtained a medical degree in the early 1880s at the prestigious university of Heidelberg and had enjoyed a successful career in medical research and treatment. At the time of the Vittori case, he was affiliated with the recently established medical school of Stanford university. But over the previous decade, Abrams had moved increasingly beyond the fold of medical orthodoxy. He had developed a theory of the body as an electrical system, which he called ErA, the Electronic reactions of Abrams. According to this theory, diseased and healthy parts of the body gave off electric vibrations that could be measured by a special machine and then interpreted by a trained ErA diagnostician. Through a series of astonishing gadgets of his own invention, Abrams claimed to be able to diagnose and cure a range of ailments, from tuberculosis to syphilis to cancer. By the time of the Vittori case, he had founded a journal, a laboratory, and a special school devoted to electronic medicine. He also had a growing cadre of disciples, both medical practitioners who trained in his methods and grateful patients who benefited from them. But it was Virginia Vittori’s paternity that first vaulted Abrams into the national and international limelight.
Among Abrams’s inventions was a machine known as the oscilophore (also referred to as an oscillospore, oscillophone, or electroradiometer), which purported to measure the vibrations of electrons in a drop of blood. rates of blood vibration, according to Abrams, varied across age, sex, race, and other characteristics. He had worked out various rates at which blood vibrated according to the ethnic ancestry of the individual (Jewish blood, 7 ohms; Irish, 15 ohms; German, 13 ohms; and so on). What is more, because “racial rates of vibration are transmitted to the progeny” and “a child through generations has the same vibratory rate as its parents,” a comparison of the blood of different individuals could reveal whether they were related.
This is how Abrams had determined that Paul Vittori was Virginia’s father. Because the case happened to involve parents of two different “races” (a concept that at this time encompassed what we would now call nationality), it also demonstrated the oscillophore’s remarkable powers of racial identification. Baby Virginia’s blood revealed that “on the father’s side she was Italian and on the mother’s side 16–25ths of an ohm Spanish and 3–25ths of an ohm French, measured electrically.” The oscillophore creatively fused two popular-scientific obsessions of the era: electricity and heredity. It also reflected an enduring characteristic of modern paternity and its science: whether based on blood groups, physical traits, or electronic vibrations, it was inextricably bound up with the idea of biological race.
If Abrams’s paternity test was credible, it was because it located identity precisely where, in the 1920s, most people would have expected to find it: the veins. The idea that blood carried the essence of selfhood was a deeply compelling one. Blood is perhaps the most culturally ubiquitous idiom for talking about race, identity, and family, “the major symbol of our kinship system,” and “a liquid rich in allegorical meaning.” The idea of a blood test of paternity combined the ancient cultural association of blood and ancestry with the modern preoccupation with heredity. If in conventional wisdom the veins were a metaphorical locus of ancestry, Abrams’s oscillophore made them a literal one.
Abrams’s oscillophore clearly did not gain universal scientific or legal acceptance. Among some, and perhaps most, orthodox medical practitioners, news of a scientific test of paternity was met not just with skepticism but with disdain. By far Abrams’s most vocal, and powerful, critic was the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA, which considered the exposure of medical quackery to be one of its central missions, orchestrated a rancorous, single-minded, but only partially successful campaign to discredit the eccentric healer. The organization’s Propaganda Department, which investigated charlatanism, was inundated by inquiries about ErA from doctors and members of the public alike. Its august mouthpiece, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), published multiple articles lambasting Abrams and then distributed thousands of reprints in pamphlet form for doctors and the public. The AMA dismissed ErA as a crass scheme to enrich its founder, but economic interests clearly motivated the guild as well: it feared Abrams’s impact on conventional doctors’ legitimacy and livelihood.
And then, at the height of his celebrity and his notoriety, Albert Abrams died suddenly. His death from pneumonia in January 1924 came exactly three years after the Vittori case first made the papers. It also came in the midst of a major investigation of ErA by Scientific American magazine—a fitting end for a career that blossomed in the glare of the media. The magazine released a posthumous report concluding the “entire Abrams electronic technique” to be “at best . . . an illusion” and “at worst . . . a colossal fraud.”
His charlatanry cast a shadow over future, more legitimate methods of kinship assessment. Yet Abrams’s most significant and longest lasting legacy was arguably just the opposite: to introduce into American public consciousness the idea that paternity could be known and that modern medical science was the way to know it. Abrams was not the first to make such a claim, but for several years in the 1920s, he offered a particularly compelling version of this story. It is one of the many ironies of this consummate snake oil salesman that his chief legacy was to create a closer association between the quest for the father and medical science.
But in parts of Europe and Latin America, other methods of scientific paternity determination were just getting started. There, the suggestion that was so unusual in 1921—that science might be able to find the father of a fatherless baby—would by the end of the decade become both conventional wisdom and established legal practice.
Nara Milanich is a professor of history at Barnard College. This essay is adapted from the author’s new book Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.