Jérôme Lejeune

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Jérôme Lejeune
Jérôme Lejeune.TIF
Jérôme Lejeune
Born(1926-06-13)13 June 1926
Died3 April 1994(1994-04-03) (aged 67)
Alma materCollège Stanislas de Paris
Paris School of Medicine
Spouse(s)Birthe Lejeune, née Bringsted
ChildrenClara Gaymard
AwardsJoseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation Award (1962)[1]
William Allan Award (1969)
Leopold Griffuel Prize (1992)[2]
Scientific career
InstitutionsFrench National Centre for Scientific Research
Faculté de Médecine de Paris
Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques
Académie Nationale de Médecine
Pontifical Academy for Life[3]

Jérôme Jean Louis Marie Lejeune (13 June 1926 – 3 April 1994) was a French pediatrician and geneticist, best known for discovering the link of diseases to chromosome abnormalities and for his subsequent opposition to prenatal diagnosis and abortion.[4] He is venerated in the Catholic Church, having been declared Venerable by Pope Francis on 21 January 2021.[5]


Discovering trisomy 21[edit]

In 1958, while working in Raymond Turpin’s laboratory with Marthe Gautier, Jérôme Lejeune reported that he had discovered that Down syndrome was caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. According to Lejeune's laboratory notebooks, he made the observation demonstrating the link on 22 May 1958. The discovery was published by the French Academy of Sciences with Lejeune as first author, Gautier as second author, and Turpin as senior author.[6] In 2009, co-author Gautier claimed that the discovery was based on fibroblast tissue samples that she had prepared and noticed the discrepancy in chromosome count on.[7] This discovery was the first time that a defect in intellectual development was shown to be linked to chromosomal abnormalities.[8][9]

Origins of the discovery[edit]

In the early 1950s, Lejeune joined the department headed by Turpin, who suggested that Lejeune focus his research on the causes of Down syndrome. As early as 1953, the two men showed a connection between an individual’s characteristics and his or her dermatoglyphs–the fingerprints and lines on the hand. The structure of these lines, which remain the same throughout the individual's life, is determined during the earliest stages of embryo development. As Lejeune and Turpin studied the hands of children with Down syndrome, they deduced that their dermatoglyphic anomalies appeared during embryo formation. After making many more observations, Lejeune concluded that the anomalies resulted from a chromosomal accident. Using a new tissue culture technique brought back from the United States by his colleague Marthe Gautier, Lejeune began working with her to count the number of chromosomes in children with Down syndrome.

The laboratory notebook begun by Lejeune on 10 July 1957 indicates that on 22 May 1958 he succeeded in showing, for the first time, the presence of 47 chromosomes in a child with Down syndrome. This was two years after Tjio and Levan had proven that the human species has 46 chromosomes. On 13 June 1958, Lejeune identified an additional case, and a photo of the karyotype met with skeptical interest at the International Congress of Genetics in Montreal. The international community did not grasp the full impact of his discovery until 26 January 1959, when the French Academy of Sciences published the team’s first paper presenting three case studies of children with Down syndrome.[6]

On 16 March 1959, another presentation to the Academy of Sciences confirmed the team's initial publication, this time covering nine cases. In April 1959, the English team of Brown and Jacobs corroborated these results, citing the initial January 1959 publication by Lejeune, Gautier, and Turpin. “Mongolism” had become trisomy 21. The discovery opened up a new field of investigation for modern genetics and laid the foundation for a new discipline: cytogenetics.

Gautier disputes his claim as the first discoverer of trisomy 21.[10] She has stated in interviews and in a 2009 article in the journal Médecine/Sciences that she worked without assistance from Lejeune to develop the necessary cytological and histological resources and techniques, and used these to prepare microscope slides showing the trisomy. By her account, Lejeune took her slides away under the pretence of having them photographed for her, but instead presented them as his own work at a conference and in a subsequent publication.[10][11][12] From the available published evidence it is clear that both Lejeune and Gautier contributed significantly to the discovery, but it remains unclear who was first.[13][14] In a personal letter from 5 November 1958 to Gautier, Lejeune wrote appreciatively about 'your preparations' that were instrumental to the discovery,[10] and Gautier appeared as co-author on two seminal papers: one on the discovery of trisomy 21[6] and a second one about the cell culture techniques that Gautier had learned during a scholarship (1955–1956) at Harvard, Boston which made the discovery possible.[15]

Later research and recognition[edit]

Continuing his work in genetics, Lejeune described several other diseases related to chromosomal abnormalities. In 1963 he identified Cri du Chat syndrome, caused by a missing segment in the short arm of chromosome 5, and in 1966 he described 18q-Syndrome, which results from loss of the distal portion of the long arm of chromosome 18. Lejeune also discovered the Dr phenotype (a malformation syndrome in which a ring-shaped chromosome replaces chromosome 13), and he identified trisomies on chromosome 9 in 1970 and chromosome 8 in 1971.

In a 1963 presentation before the French Academy of Sciences, Lejeune showed that monosomy—the absence of a specific segment of the genome—could also result in a clinically recognizable disease. Several years later, a group of American scientists came to Paris to conduct an independent investigation of Lejeune’s discovery, and in 1962 the President of the United States personally presented him with the Kennedy Prize. In 1964, the first chair of human genetics was created at the Paris School of Medicine, and Lejeune was named to fill it. The appointment was highly unusual: only a groundbreaking discovery allowed a candidate to be named a professor of medicine without successfully completing a competitive residency examination.

In 1969, Lejeune's work earned him the William Allan Award, granted by the American Society of Human Genetics, the world’s highest honor in genetics[citation needed]. As of 2013 he was the only Frenchman to have won it.[16]

Anti-abortion work[edit]

Although Lejeune’s discoveries paved the way for new therapeutic research into how changes in gene copy number could cause disease, they also led to the development of prenatal diagnosis of chromosome abnormalities and thence to abortions of affected pregnancies. This was very distressing to Lejeune, a devout Catholic, and led him to begin his fight for the anti-abortion cause.

Lejeune opposed the authorization in 1967 for women to use contraception as well as the Peyret laws in 1970 to render legal the interruption of pregnancy in case of fetal abnormalities. He also opposed the Veil Law ("Loi Veil" 1975) authorizing voluntary interruption of pregnancy.[17][18]

After receiving the Allan prize, Lejeune gave a talk to his colleagues which concluded by explicitly questioning the morality of abortion, an unpopular viewpoint in the profession. In a letter to his wife, Lejeune wrote "today, I lost my Nobel prize in Medicine."[19][20]

In 1975, after one of his public appearances in Paris on the beginning of life, Lejeune met Wanda Półtawska, director of the Catholic Institute for the Family in Kraków. Later that year, Półtawska contacted Lejeune twice, asking him to speak at conferences on the beginning of life that she was organizing with one of her close friends, Monsignor Karol Wojtyla, then Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow. On 16 October 1978 Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II.

Afterward, Lejeune regularly traveled to Rome to meet with the Pope, to attend meetings of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and to participate in other church events, such as the 1987 Synod of Bishops. The Pope wanted to name Lejeune as the president of a new pontifical academy that was dear to his heart: the Pontifical Academy for Life.[21] Lejeune painstakingly drafted its bylaws and the oath of the Servants of Life that each member of the Academy must take.

Lejeune was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 1993. He served as president of the Academy for only a few weeks before his death in April 1994.

A few years later, during his visit to Paris for World Youth Day 1997, John Paul II visited Lejeune’s grave in Châlo-Saint-Mars. Lejeune has been named "Servant of God" by the Catholic Church, and his cause for sainthood is being postulated by the Abbey of Saint Wandrille in France.

On 21 January 2021, Pope Francis declared Lejeune's heroic virtues, and Lejeune was named "Venerable".

Honors, awards and credentials[edit]

Jérôme Lejeune received many distinctions during his lifetime. He was a member of:

Lejeune held honorary doctorates from:

His international positions included:

Consulting expert on human genetics (1962)

  • International Commission on Radiological Protection

Committee member (1963)

  • United Nations
    • French expert to the Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation


  • Life is a Blessing by Clara Lejeune ISBN 978-0-935372-59-5
  • The Concentration Can by Jérôme Lejeune ISBN 978-0-89870-394-8
  • The Tiniest Humans by Robert L. Sassone, Jerome Lejeune, Albert W. Liley ISBN 1-890712-17-5
  • Jérôme Lejeune by Anne Bernet ISBN 978-2-7509-0029-8
  • Le Professeur Lejeune - Fondateur de la Génétique Moderne by Jean-Marie Le Méné ISBN 978-2-7289-0859-2


  2. ^ "Liste des lauréats du Prix ARC Léopold Griffuel depuis sa création". 17 January 2008. Archived from the original on 17 January 2008. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  3. ^ "Jerome Lejeune". Jerome Lejeune Foundation USA.
  4. ^ Hulten, Maj. "Obituary: Professor Jerome Lejeune". The Independent. Retrieved 5 March 2014.
  5. ^ "French doctor who made Down discovery closer to sainthood". AP NEWS. 2021-01-21. Retrieved 2021-01-21.
  6. ^ a b c Lejeune, Jérôme, Marthe Gauthier, and Raymond Turpin (1959). "Les chromosomes humains en culture de tissus [The human chromosomes in tissue culture]". Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires des Séances de l'Académie des Sciences (248): 602–603.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ "The history of cytogenetics" S. Gilgenkrantz, E.M. Rivera, March 2003 p. 5
  8. ^ Gautier, Marie; Harper, P. S. (2009). "Fiftieth anniversary of trisomy 21: returning to a discovery" (PDF). Human Genetics. 126 (2): 317–324. doi:10.1007/s00439-009-0690-1.
  9. ^ "Trisomie : une pionnière intimidée". Le Monde. February 2004. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  10. ^ a b c Gautier, Marthe and Peter S. Harper (2009). "Fiftieth anniversary of trisomy 21: returning to a discovery" (PDF). Human Genetics. 126 (2): 317–324. doi:10.1007/s00439-009-0690-1.
  11. ^ "Trisomie : une pionnière intimidée". Le Monde. 2014-02-03. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  12. ^ "La vieille dame et les huissiers de la Fondation Lejeune". Le Monde. February 2014. Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  13. ^ Casassus, Barbara (2014). "Down's syndrome discovery dispute resurfaces in France. Debate flares over who discovered extra chromosome that causes the disease". Nature News. Feb 11, 2014. doi:10.1038/nature.2014.14690.
  14. ^ Pain, Elisabeth (2014). "After More Than 50 Years, a Dispute Over Down Syndrome Discovery". Science. 343 (6172): 720–721. Bibcode:2014Sci...343..720P. doi:10.1126/science.343.6172.720. PMID 24531949.
  15. ^ Lejeune, Jerome; Turpin, Raymond; Gautier, Marthe (1960). "Étude des chromosomes somatiques. Technique pour la culture de fibroblastes in vitro" [Study of somatic chromosomes. Technique to culture fibroblasts in vitro]. Revue Française d'Études Cliniques et Biologiques. 5: 406–408.
  16. ^ "Past ASHG Award recipients". Archived from the original on 3 October 2014. Retrieved 10 February 2014.
  17. ^ "Chronologie - Contraception et IVG, 25 ans après la loi Veil - Dossiers - La Documentation française" (in French). Ladocumentationfrancaise.fr. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  18. ^ Gilgenkrantz, S; Rivera, E.M (2003). "The history of cytogenetics Portraits of some pioneers" (PDF). Annales de Génétique. 46: 433–442. doi:10.1016/S0003-3995(03)00012-1. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  19. ^ Benderly, Beryl Lieff. "UPDATED: A scientist saint?". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  20. ^ Smith, Peter Jesserer. "Jerome Lejeune, Walking in the Footsteps of St. Thomas More". National Catholic Register. EWTN. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  21. ^ "French Pro-Life Geneticist Jerome Lejeune to be Considered for Catholic Beatification". Cardinalrating.com. Archived from the original on 2014-02-22. Retrieved 3 March 2014.

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