When syphilis tests and ears decided whether man is father of child

Proving Paternity In The Age Before DNA Testing

Everybody loves a paternity suit. Everybody but the man it is brought against and the child who is at the centre of it. With DNA testing, public interest has shrunk to who is accusing whom, and whether the charge is proved true.

A century ago, things were more complicated and interesting. There was more drama between the charge and the judgment. Deciding paternity was a dark art in which an artist’s expert eye played an important role. The blood tests of the time were scary, and dangerous.

How about declaring a man someone’s father based on the shape of their ears? That’s one way paternity suits were decided. You would have wished for a wrestler’s cauliflower ears in that predicament.


The Teddy Slingsby case became a sensation in the mid-1910s. Englishman Charles Raymond Slingsby, who was heir to a large fortune, settled in San Francisco, married and became the father of Teddy Slingsby. Charles’s younger brothers were not pleased. One of them conspired with a nurse to spread the rumour that Teddy was a changeling. The couple’s own son had died at birth and Teddy had been planted in his place, she said.

Teddy Slingsby

An annual income of $50,000 was at stake.

So strong seemed the proof that the California court declared Teddy to be a changeling,” says a newspaper report from 1921. But in England, Judge Deane of the probate court of London declared him legitimate. “The verdict was reached on account of the child’s jaw and ear, which last feature had a marked family peculiarity.


Eugene Sorine’s case was even stranger. The nine-year-old’s mother wanted him declared illegitimate only to deny his biological father, her ex-husband, visiting rights. Mamie Sorine del Secco, resident of San Francisco, must have hated her former husband Julius B Sorine immeasurably to claim in court she had been unfaithful. Law turned to art for counsel, and noted sculptor Haig Patigan was called in to help establish Eugene’s right to a name.

Patigan’s opinion: “from a comparison of features the child bore a striking resemblance to Sorine.

A second opinion, based on blood tests done by Dr Albert Abrams, “left no doubt of (Julius) Sorine’s right to call the child his.”


What were these blood tests like? One was a test for the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. “If I were doing it I should give a Wassermann test, too, for blood diseases on all three (man, woman, child). If the father and the child have a positive reaction it would strongly indicate that the man was the child’s parent, since the baby would be too young to gain an infection of this sort,” said Dr Thomas W. Edgar, an “expert in blood tests and specialist on gland study”.

But the more commonly done test was dangerous—potentially fatal—and relied on triggering a severe reaction through a small transfusion of blood.

“I would separate the corpuscles from the serum (of the child’s blood). Then I would take a hypodermic syringe and inject the child’s serum into the bodies of father and mother, carefully noting the reaction. This reaction and this process is what we call anaphylaxis. Symptoms of reaction, which would indicate that the blood is the same, would be a general feeling of malaise, a fatigue, a high temperature and swelling of the glands. If two adults are the real parents they both will reveal these symptoms, showing that from these two beings the third creaturethe childhas come into the world.

Luckily, these experts did not place too much faith in their tests. “Blood tests are unsatisfactory. One cannot say definite things after the test is made, but only what one feels about a certain case at hand,” said Edgar, adding, “To define, absolutely, legitimacy or illegitimacy of a child is impossible at present. We can find no definite proof of parenthood so far.”

Although physical comparisons—shape of ears, look in the eye, peculiarity of hairline, shape of hand or instep—were used to decide suits, their testimony was known to be doubtful: “A child might resemble one man in these respectsa husband who denied the childand yet be the offspring of another.

The problem was that doctors and courts did not have much else to go ahead on while deciding a paternity suit. They shrugged and judged anyway with the understanding that “all the proof has been taken into consideration and that it looks as if the child were legitimate and it is probably so in most of these cases.



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