Identical Twins Separated at Birth

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Podcast Transcript

In the 1960s, a New York clinical psychiatrist and an adoption agency conducted an experiment. They separated multiple sets of identical twins and one set of identical triplets into different families to test how much of personality is due to genetics or the environment. 

None of the children or families were ever told about this. 

The results of this experiment, and other cases like it, have proved to be fascinating.

Learn more about identical twins and triples that were separated at birth on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

One of the greatest debates in the history of psychology is if humans are fundamentally ruled by genetics or by our environment, or as it is usually described, nature or nurture. 

If we were raised in a different family, in a different place, and mabey a different time, how different would we be? 

We all probably would like to think that we would be exactly the same people, but that is more because we can’t envision ourselves being someone we are not. 

One way to test nature vs. nurture would be to somehow remove one of the variables. There have been countless cases of people with different genetic backgrounds being raised in similar environments. But what if it were possible to do the opposite? Take two people with the same genetics and raise them in different environments. 

The only people who have the exact same genetics are identical twins, and you don’t really see identical twins raised in different households. To do so, you would have to separate them at birth. 

For the longest time, there just weren’t any cases like this. 

For starters, identical twins are relatively uncommon. There are 32 sets of twins born for every 1,000 births, and only a third of those are identical. It isn’t something that is super rare, I’m sure most of us know a pair of identical twins, or perhaps you are one yourself, but it also is a small minority of people.

Seconds, assuming you had twins, the number of children who are born who are put up for adoption is even smaller. Only about 0.6% of children born in the United States are put up for adoption each year, and in other countries, that number is much lower. 

Finally, if you had identical twins, and if they were put up for adoption, most adoption agencies would ethically do whatever they could to keep the twins together.  Even if they had no ethical qualms about separating a pair of twins, in the past, most adoption agencies worked in a very small area, and the odds of the twins finding each other would have been quite high. 

As it turns out, despite the low odds of something like this happening, it has happened. There are several cases of identical twins who were put up for adoption and sent to be raised by two different families. 

In some of those cases, through sheer luck and serendipity, the twins managed to find each other. 

These few cases have been eye-opening and have been a powerful data point in the nature vs. nurture debate.

The most famous case was that of Jim Lewis and Jim Springer. 

The two men were born in Ohio in 1940 and were identical twins separated at birth. The adoption agency split them apart but did mention to the families that adopted them that their child had a brother. 

In one case, the Springer family of Lima, Ohio, assumed that the other twin had died. 

However, the Lewis family of Piquia, Ohio, heard someone mention in passing at the courthouse when they got their adoption papers certified that the ‘other’ boy had been adopted as well. 

That off-hand remark resulted in Jim Lewis contacting the probate court, which had records of his adoption 39 years later, to find his long-lost brother.

It turns out that his identical twin brother had been living just 45 miles away for his entire life. 

That, however, wasn’t the shocking part. What was shocking was just how similar these two men, who had been raised and lived separately for almost 40 years, were. 

For starters, they were both named “James” when they were adopted and went by the name Jim. Each man had an adopted brother named Larry.

They both had dogs growing up that they named “Toy.” They both had good grades in school in math and woodworking and were poor at spelling. 

They both had been married twice. Both men had a first wife by the name of Linda. Both men had a second wife by the name of Betty. Both men had sons whom they named James Allen (although one spelled allen with two L’s and one with a single L).

Both men smoked the same brand of cigarette and drank the same brand of beer. Both men had careers in security and law enforcement, with one being a security guard and one being a deputy sheriff. 

They drove the same make and color of car. They both took their families on vacation to the same beach in Saint Petersburg, Florida. 

Both men suffered from tension headaches which began at the age of eighteen for both of them. 

When news of the two men became public in 1979, it spread rapidly. It was covered in every major newspaper, and the two were invited to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. 

The two men were contacted by researchers at the University of Minnesota who were conducting the world’s largest study on twins. 

You might be thinking that in the case of Jim Lewis and Jim Springer, they might have been raised in separate families, but they were still raised in roughly the same area, in the same culture. 

However, there have been cases of identical twins raised in radically different environments. 

In particular, the case of Jack Yufe and Oskar Stohr. 

Jack and Oskar were identical twins born in 1933 on the island of Trinidad. Just six months after they were born, their German Catholic mother took Oskar to Germany, while their Romanian Jewish father remained in Trinidad.

Oksar grew up in Nazi Germany and was forced to join the Hitler Youth when he was in school. 

Jack was raised Jewish by his father back in Trinidad. At the age of 15, he went to Venezuela to live with his aunt, who was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp. She encouraged Jack to immigrate to Israel, which he did the next year, and joined the Israeli Navy. 

Unlike the case of the Jims, Oskar and Jack both knew they had a twin brother. In 1954, at the age of 21, Jack traveled to Germany to meet his long-lost identical twin brother. 

The meeting was awkward, and language differences prevented them from really talking to each other. They shook hands and parted ways. 

However, after Jim Lewis and Jim Springer came to the attention of the public in 1979, Jack learned of the twins study and thought that perhaps he should try to contact his brother again. 

By this time, he was living in the United States. He reached out to his brother again about being interviewed by researchers in Minnesota. The men met again for a second time at the Minneapolis airport, and they couldn’t believe what they saw.

Both men dressed the same way, wearing a white suit with the same wire-rim glasses. Both men wore rubber bands around their writs. They had very similar personalities. They walked the same way. Interpreters said they had the same manner of speech, just in different languages. 

They both liked spicy food and both had the odd habit of flushing a toilet before and after using it. 

However, they were also very different. Because of their radically different upbringings, they couldn’t agree on anything. When they talked about the war or about Israel, they had radically different opinions. 

Despite very serious attempts at trying to get along, they just couldn’t bring themselves to like each other. 

There were other cases. Debbie Mehlman and Sharon Poset are identical twins. Debbie grew up in a Jewish household in West Hartford, Connecticut. Sharon grew up in a Christian household in Birmingham, Alabama. 

They found each other at the age of 45 and shared many similar personality quirks, including the fact that they are both very religious. However, one is devoutly Jewish, and the other is devoutly Catholic. 

Tom Patterson and Steve Tazumi were twins separated by a Japanese adoption agency. One grew up in Kansas, and the other in New Jersey. One was raised a Buddhist, and the other a Christian. One was an Eagles fan, and the other was a Chiefs fan.

Both men established bodybuilding gyms before they met at the age of 40.

Between 1979 and 1999, the Minnesota Twin Survey found 137 sets of identical twins that were separated at birth. 

While many of these cases happened independently, there was one epicenter where many of these separations happened. In the 1960s, a clinical psychiatrist named Peter Neubauer worked with a Jewish adoption agency in New York to purposely separate identical twins so they could later be studied. 

None of the families involved were ever notified about what happened, and the study has, for obvious reasons, been called highly unethical. Moreover, Neubauer never published anything from this so-called experiment. 

It did, however, result in another famous case of the only known identical triplets separated at birth. 

In 1980 Robert Shafran attended his first day at Sullivan Community College in New York. As he walked around campus, everyone kept calling him Eddie.  It turned out he was a dead ringer for someone named Eddit Galland, who had attended the year before. 

A mutual friend reached out to Eddie, and the two met. When they realized that they were both adopted, they figured out that they were brothers. 

When the story hit the news, David Kellman, a student at Queens College, saw these two guys who looked exactly like himself. He reached out and found that they were, in fact, identical triplets. 

The three men were part of Dr. Neubauer’s study. While the families knew they were part of a study when they adopted the boys, none of them had a clue that they had identical brothers. For the first ten years of their lives, researchers would come and visit the families to collect data. 

Each of the boys was placed in families from different economic strata. Each of the families would later go on to say that they would have adopted all three boys if they had been given the option, but none of them were. 

All three brothers had very similar personalities and became great friends and business partners. The three were the subject of a documentary called “Three Identical Strangers.”

In 1995, Eddie killed himself, having suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. He spent the last several years of his life moving to be closer to his brothers. 

It turned out that suicide rates among the twins separated by Dr. Neubauer were far higher than that of the general population. 

The practice of separating identical twins still hasn’t vanished, and cases occasionally appear. 

Isabella Solimene and Ha Nguyen were born in Vietnam. Isabella grew up in the United States, and her aunt and uncle in Vietnam raised Ha. 

Audrey Doering, from Wisconsin, and Gracie Rainsberry, from Washington, were born in China and adopted by American families. They reunited at the age of 10. Audrey was raised in a proper household as a Packer fan, whereas Gracie was, sadly, raised to support the Seahawks. 

What can we learn from these identical twins who were raised separately in different environments?

For starters, genetics does play a role in making us who we are. Human beings are not blank slates that can be transformed into whatever we want. Much of our personality does come from our genes. 

However, genetics have a great deal of randomness. Two non-twin siblings from the same parents can end up wildly different, even though they are genetically similar. 

At the same time, genetics doesn’t explain everything. Our genes are not computer programs that we have to follow without any deviation. The environment we grow up in does play a factor in who we turn out to be. 

The truth lies somewhere in between nature and nurture. The real debate is where that somewhere lies. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener rainbow6785e5 on Apple Podcasts in Australia. They write:


Awesome can you do more Australian episodes please please please I love this show super cool . I learn so much that I can teach my parents stuff keep doing this great show!!!!!

Thanks, Rainbow! I certainly do have more Australia-themed episodes on the list of future shows. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Australia and have been able to visit every state, and even got to visit Lord Howe Island, something that most Australians don’t get to do. 

While I do have some ideas, I’m always open to more as well. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.