Who was Professor Jerome Lejeune?

Pilar Calva
May 5 2015
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

I studied medicine with a constant scientific outlook, with the honesty required by a search for truth. When I finished medical school, I had a few months before being able to begin a program specializing in genetics. My dad suggested that I go to work on my thesis in France as he had great admiration for the French contribution to medicine, and, by coincidence, right at that time, I had a brother studying there as well. My genetics professor put me in contact with Professor Jérôme Lejeune , a French doctor, and a great geneticist - the father, I would say, of modern genetics. (Mendel is the father of all genetics.)

In 1958, Lejeune had discovered that an extra 21st chromosome is responsible for Down syndrome, or Trisomy 21. The publication of his discovery appeared in the journal Nature in 1959. Some would try to use this discovery to eliminate children with Trisomy 21 before they were born. Lejeune dedicated his life tirelessly and unfailingly to defending them, and all the unborn.

When I spoke with Professor Lejeune personally for the first time in July of 1983, I remember that what most struck me were his clear blue eyes, which gave me the sense of almost touching his search for truth and goodness. After a simple, brief and warm welcome, he explained what I would be doing: I would accompany him during all of the time he was with his patients (to learn the clinical side of genetics, so I thought). The rest of the time, I would be behind a microscope attempting to fine-tune a new diagnostic technique for Fragile X syndrome, which is one of the genetic causes of mental retardation and was the subject of my thesis. Thus began my first session in his service.

During the months that I spent at his side, seeing hundreds of patients with genetic illnesses, especially Down syndrome, what struck me was his scientific thoroughness with each one of them. He spent a great deal of his time patiently reviewing each of his patients with extraordinary precision. He perfectly realized that we doctors are not before illness , but before ill people , and that each person is different and requires our complete attention. During his life, Lejeune would have 9,000 clinical cases of patients with Down syndrome, from the newborn to the elderly. He was the one who made the commitment to them to search for a cure for illnesses of the intelligence.

During hours of appointments, what most surprised me was his love for life. He saw difficult cases: patients who did not improve despite the treatments he gave them. Patients who suffered and whose families suffered, especially the parents. I remember how he spoke to those parents who had decided to leave their newborn in the maternity ward if studies revealed some chromosomal illness, especially Trisomy 21: words to make the parents and the patients fall in love with life. He would show them in the microscope what made them different than others. He believed, and made others believe, that people with illnesses of the intelligence are capable of loving, especially of loving life. For them, he dedicated thousands of hours of clinics and investigation. Shortly before dying, he told his wife that the only thing that unsettled him was not having reached the goal of finding a treatment.

It's because of this that today the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation continues financing research. There is a branch of this foundation in the United States dedicated to further research and treatment.

Life was not easy for Professor Lejeune, defending and fighting for the good of his patients. He opposed doing prenatal diagnoses that had the goal of provoking an abortion, since this was the equivalent of giving a death sentence to an innocent person. Using the most modern genetic studies, he presented to various audiences of scientists and lawmakers the proofs of the human status of the embryo from the moment of conception . The most well-known of these presentations was testimony in the Maryville (Tennessee) case in which spouses who were separating, battled over the custody of their children - children who were frozen in the embryonic state. As a result, his budgets and research grants were cut, he likely lost the Nobel Prize, and he gained many enemies, especially in the scientific fields.

And yet, his tireless fidelity to the truth and to life also brought to him the smiles and the gratitude of his patients, the joy of a mission fulfilled and the friendship and trust of Pope John Paul II, who charged him with the foundation of the Pontifical Academy for Life (at breakfast on the very same day that the Pope would suffer the assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square) and named him its first president (Feb. 26, 1994). Lejeune would die just six weeks later. On the occasion of his death, John Paul II wrote:

In his capacity as a learned biologist, he was passionately interested in life. […] He became one of the ardent defenders of life, especially of the life of preborn children, which, in our contemporary civilization, is often endangered to such an extent that one could think the danger is by design. […] Professor Lejeune assumed the full responsibility that was his as a scientist, and he was ready to become a 'sign of contradiction,' regardless of the pressures exerted by a permissive society or of the ostracism that he underwent.

In 2004, Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, who served in those years as president of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, noted Lejeune's spiritual life and proposed opening his cause for beatification.

Thanks to the testimony of Professor Lejeune, I received my first lessons in bioethics:

For me, the most valuable of his accomplishments was the change he made in me. When I arrived in France, I lived a life divided between faith and reason . I thought that from Monday to Saturday, I put on my white coat for my scientific tasks, and Sunday was the day I took off the white coat, put on my crucifix and dedicated myself to my religious duties. Professor Lejeune truly converted me, making me see that one can wear the white coat and the cross, at the same time. That is, one can fly with the wing of faith and the wing of reason.

Youth today need people like Jérôme. It is clear that in a world where too many doctors are at the service of death, or exploit others' suffering, Professor Lejeune appears, morally and scientifically, as an uncontested leader called to raise up a new generation of researchers and doctors.

At the age of 87, Jérôme's wife, Birthe, has decided to defend her husband, whom the opposition today attacks as an opportunist and usurper. Unable to defend himself, he has been discredited for opposing selective medicine and research that leads to death, in the process, being ridiculed for his commitment to the defense of life.

Let us pray for the beatification of Jérôme Lejeune, that soon, a cure might be found for Down syndrome and that his love for life, in all its fragile forms, may come to be embraced by all.

Biographical Information: (June 26, 1926 - April 3, 1994)

Cause For Beatification