Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father, by Nara B. Milanich

Lennard Davis praises a definitive account of DNA testing 

August 8, 2019
Jared Rosenthal set up a mobile business to make DNA testing more accessible to everyone
Source: Getty
Jared Rosenthal set up a mobile business to make DNA testing more accessible to everyone

Like many people today, I have used DNA testing to find which populations I am linked with. In the course of that, I discovered relatives I had no idea were connected to me. Most dramatically, I found out that the father that I grew up with was actually my biological uncle, whereas my uncle was my biological father.

So I turned to Nara B. Milanich’s new book Paternity with an eager attention. The work is a history of paternity testing as it evolved from the 19th century to the present. The core of the book concerns the first half of the 20th century, particularly the use of blood tests to exclude possible parents. The interesting premise is that each iteration of paternity testing offered the possibility that science would finally resolve difficult legal cases; but the author’s main point is that social and cultural norms always trump the apparent certainty of data.

In that sense, the book constantly wrestles with the larger question of what it means to be someone’s father. Is it a biological fact; an emotional relationship; an economic responsibility; or simply the function of being married to the mother of a child? In my case, having proved that my father wasn’t my father, how should I now integrate that fact into my life? He raised me, provided for me and loved me – so is he any less my father than the uncle whose sperm was donated in an act of artificial insemination?

Milanich’s book provides many fascinating cases that explore just this issue. Ranging from South America to Europe and the US, she provides enough examples of mistaken identity, rape and cuckoldry to satisfy any tabloid reader. We hear about a would-be Martin Guerre amnesiac in Italy who was identified by a woman as her long-lost husband and the father of her children (and future children), only to be revealed as an impostor (or was he?); a black child born to a white married woman in Pisa, dismaying her white husband; and Jews in Nazi Germany seeking to discover if they are actually Aryan or Semitic, with life or death consequences – all these and more could make a very extensive television series.

The book also introduces us to many scientists working on paternity testing. Some would surmise paternity based on physiological traits, including a dentist who was sure he could tell from the shape of people’s oral cavities and those who used composite photographs. There is even a strange machine that measured the vibrations of cells in blood to determine racial and paternal identity. Furthermore, Milanich provides a very detailed account of the discovery of blood types and their use in such testing.

If it sounds like the book covers a lot of ground, it does. The material is deeply researched both archivally and through interviews with surviving family members. The author, a historian at Barnard College, Columbia University, has clearly spent years examining the field. Sometimes the sheer wealth of information overwhelms the organisation of the book, and repetition and recurrence intrude into an otherwise extremely compelling and well-written narrative. Yet Milanich has a knack for finding a gripping story and telling it in almost novelistic or journalistic cadences. Surely, this is the definitive book on the subject of paternity testing.

Lennard Davis is distinguished professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father
By Nara B. Milanich
Harvard University Press
360pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674980686
Published 28 June 2019

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