If you only covered the first three decades of Cappy Rothman’s life, you’d still have enough for a movie.
That film would be about the handsome, playboy son of a midcentury mobster – his father was Norman “Roughhouse” Rothman – and a life that involved hanging out in swanky Havana nightclubs and driving around Miami Beach with his pet monkey.
But those early years have little to do with the legacy that the 85-year-old from Pacific Palisades ultimately built after finding his calling in medical school.
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In the ’70s, through talent and luck, Rothman found himself on the leading edge of andrology, then the still little-known field of male reproductive and sexual health. With a restless curiosity and the willingness to try anything to help his patients, he became a pioneer in male infertility.
Dr. Cappy Rothman in front of a wall of photographs of children born through services he provided. (Courtesy of Cappy Rothman)
“God of Sperm” by Joe Donnelly with Cappy Rothman is a biography of Rothman, who grew up the son of a Miami Beach mobster before finding a passion for medicine and becoming a pioneer in the treatment of fertility issues, especially male infertility. (Courtesy of Rare Bird Books)
Dr. Cappy Rothman, a pioneer of male infertility treatment and the use of donor sperm, as seen in the LA Weekly article that provided the name of his new biography. (Courtesy of Cappy Rothman)
Dr. Cappy Rothman at Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. (Courtesy of Cappy Rothman)
Dr. Cappy Rothman with his microscope. Rothman, the son of a Miami Beach mobster, who grew up to become a pioneer in the field of infertility treatment, is the subject of the new book, “God of Sperm,” written by Joe Donnelly with Cappy Rothman. (Photo courtesy of Cappy Rothman)
“God of Sperm” is the eye-catching title of a new book on Rothman’s life. Written by Joe Donnelly with Rothman’s assistance, it’s a fascinating look at an American original whose work as a doctor aided the conception of hundreds of thousands of children.
“When I started, there was no field of andrology. I felt like I was walking into a cave with a candle,” he says. “The cave is now filled with people and floodlights, and the information just seems to be extraordinary, algorithmic, the way knowledge is being added.”
Rothman says of his life in medicine, “I miss it greatly.”
Donnelly, a longtime journalist who worked at the LA Weekly when it first referred to Rothman by the book’s title, says that when he was first approached to write Rothman’s story he wasn’t sure a book set in the world of male reproductive health was a good fit for him.
“At first glance, it’s interesting,” says Donnelly, now a Whittier College professor. “But it’s not in my wheelhouse or a topic I feel any closeness or affinity for.
“But once I got into it, I felt both a duty to the story and to Cappy and to try and do my best to tell that story,” he says. “And to put it into context, you know, that this is one of those great American tales from the post-war era.”
Living the life
“It was absolutely fantastic growing up in Miami Beach in that magical period of time,” Rothman says. His father had relocated from the Bronx to Miami for a new job when Cappy was 10.
Rothman says he doesn’t have many details of what his father’s work entailed. From the ages of 12 to 17, Cappy was away for school at the Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, so time spent at home in Miami or in Havana was vacation.
“I had the most marvelous time in Miami Beach because of my father,” Rothman says. “When I went to the University of Miami, I had a Cadillac convertible with air-conditioning. I had a monkey. I had access to an airplane and I was learning to fly.
“I was able to see, through my father’s influence, the Rat Pack whenever they were in the Fontainebleau,” he says the entertainers that included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. “Not only see them but actually have almost front row seats.”
Life was a joyride thanks to the access and accommodation he got from being the son of Roughhouse Rothman.
“Everything was comped,” Rothman says. “They all knew my father. They loved my father. In Cuba, people would call him ‘Mr. Normie’ walking down the street. The guy that did his shoes – ‘Hi, Mr. Normie!’ – the guy that had the coffee shop.”
In Cuba, Rothman met the soon-to-be-deposed dictator Fulgencia Batista. In Miami Beach, he partied with the sons of the Cuban elites, trailed from nightclub to nightclub by their bodyguards.
As for what he knew of his father’s work, Rothman says he thought he might be a bookie since some of his duties involved running the cocktail lounge at the Albion Hotel, a reputed gangster hangout in the ’50s and ’60s, according to the book. He did attend some of the U.S. Senate hearings where his father was called to testify about Mafia activities such as plots to kill Castro.
But for the most part, his father’s business just wasn’t a big deal to him.
“My friends envied me because at this time the heroes of the day were Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft,” he says, reeling off the stars of various mob movies. “The gangsters seemed to be the heroes. My friends would say, “Wow, your dad’s in jail.’ So I was a hero in a way.”
Rothman says he learned more about his father’s criminal activities from the information Donnelly found through Freedom of Information Act requests and FBI files. But his father never said much at all until his dying day.
“I remember when he was dying, in the hospital,” Rothman says, recalling that he’d asked his father if he’d talk to a reporter friend about his life. “He said, ‘I never talked when I was alive. I’m certainly going to talk when I’m dying.’
“I even asked him, ‘Well, do you know who killed Kennedy?’ He said, ‘Forget about it.’”
Moving into medicine
For his military service, Rothman served in the Coast Guard, signing up to be a corpsman, that service’s name for a medic, mostly because he heard they’d let you wear civilian clothes and work alongside WAVES, the women’s division of the Navy.
He found he had a passion and talent for medicine that – after six months working for Teamsters’ boss Jimmy Hoffa in Washington D.C. – led him to medical school, and after graduation in 1969, a series of internships and residencies that eventually led him to the University of California, San Francisco hospital where urologist Frank Hinman Jr. became his mentor.
Rothman, who by then had married his wife Beth, with whom he has three sons, worked on several studies assigned by Himman during that time. Rothman still thought he’d end up an endoscopist, but after working at Loma Linda Medical Center to become board-certified in urology, he landed a job at the Tyler Clinic, where founder Ed Tyler was one of the earliest pioneers of American infertility medicine.
“I spent a year there learning a great deal and becoming fascinated with this incredible cell, the sperm,” Rothman says of the clinic. He left after Tyler died in 1975, having had a falling out with a more senior clinician.
“In 1975, urologists weren’t trained for infertility,” he says. “There wasn’t even the field of microsurgery. There wasn’t even a field of andrology. But within six weeks, I became booked up for six months.
“I was overwhelmed because I was the go-to guy for infertility, or any issues with testicular dysfunction that was not cancer, that was not an infection, that was not congenital,” Rothman says.
At the time, infertility was almost entirely considered to be a female problem, he says. If a man had sexual function, the majority of doctors believed he was fertile.
“I dedicated myself to exposing the fact that men can be infertile,” Rothman says. “And it’s now recognized that 50% of infertile couples it’s [due to the] male factor.”
Rothman’s willingness to explore previously underused or unknown procedures to address male infertility made him not only the doctor of choice for many couples seeking to have children, but it also led him to create or popularize new treatments that today are taken for granted.
One of them – retrieving and freezing viable sperm from a man after death – had never been done before. But in 1980 Rothman agreed to try at the request of the former U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston of California, whose son had been badly injured and declared brain dead in an accident.
“The resident called and asked me, ‘Can you do it?’” Rothman says. “There was no literature, there was no research. But it was both a desire to help as well as my incredible curiosity: Could I? The senator asked, ‘How much are you going to charge?’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to charge anything. I don’t know if I can do it.’”
The procedure Rothman tried proved successful, and upon returning to his office and looking through his microscope. “I noticed millions of sperm in the testicle and epididymis and I knew it could be done,” he says.
Take that to the bank
That procedure, though it received plenty of headlines and a good measure of controversy, was rare, a curiosity, when compared to the much bigger impact Rothman’s work with sperm banking and the use of donor sperm, Donnelly says.
“There are conceivably no barriers to reproduction from the male side as long as you’re not sterile,” Donnelly says.
More significant was Rothman’s popularization of donor sperm through his early work at the Tyler Clinic to his cofounding of the California Cryobank, which is either the first- or second-largest sperm bank in the world.
“He took it out of the shadows,” Donnelly says. “Using donor sperm had been around a long time but it became furtive. And Cappy came along with his big personality and his frankness and just talked about sperm in a down-to-earth way.”
Donor sperm and the sperm bank also gave agency to single women and gay couples who wanted children, and also showed how microsurgery – “He was arguably one of the best microsurgeons in the world,” Donnelly says – could advance urology and infertility treatment.
Rothman agrees that his impact on fertility has been greatest through sperm banking, something he took on as a side service to his urology practice only to watch it grow and keep growing.
“When I sold the company the first time in 2014, I was responsible for the birth of 240,000 children,” he says. “Now the number is well over 400,000. And I figure in two generations, and it’s happening, there are going to be millions.”