Fr John Flader Q&A: An extraordinary layman

Reading Time: 3 minutes
French Catholic pediatrician and possible future Catholic saint, Dr Jerome Lejeune. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA CC BY-SA 3.0

Jérôme Lejeune was a French paediatrician and geneticist who was a champion of human life at all ages and who, among other things, was famous for discovering the cause of Down Syndrome.

He visited Australia several times and I had the joy of hearing him speak at Warrane College at the University of New South Wales in the 1970s. His daughter Clara has written a biography of him, titled Life is a Blessing, published by Ignatius Press in 2000.

Lejeune was born on 13 June 1926 in Paris, into a middle-class family. He studied medicine, graduating in 1951. He then took up work with Professor Raymond Turpin at the National Centre of Scientific Research, doing research into the cause of Down Syndrome.

In 1952 he married Birthe Bringsted, a Danish lady who had gone to work in Paris as an au paire. Brought up a Lutheran, Birthe became a Catholic shortly before their wedding. They had five children together and Lejeune was ever a devoted father to them and a devoted husband, writing to Birthe every day he was away.

In 1958, using a photomicroscope he had invented to photograph cells, he discovered that the cause of Down Syndrome was a third chromosome 21, a condition known thereafter as Trisomy 21. He liked to say that people with Down Syndrome had something more, not less.

After that discovery, Lejeune was awarded numerous prizes and membership in international academies and institutions. Among the prizes was the Kennedy Prize, which he received directly from President John F. Kennedy in Washington.

In 1964 Dr Lejeune was made the first ever Professor of Fundamental Genetics in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. In 1965 he became Head of the Cytogenetics Unit at the Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris, where he investigated with his team over 30,000 chromosome cases and treated more than 9000 people with intellectual disorders.

In 1969 the American Society of Human Genetics awarded Lejeune its highest distinction, the William Allen Memorial Award. In his acceptance speech in San Francisco, he challenged his audience to consider whether a mass of cells in the womb of its mother was a human being or not, and whether it should be rejected if it did not meet our expectations or rather protected in all possible ways. He said that it troubled him that his discovery would lead to many of these embryos being aborted. Some of the audience applauded politely while others stood up and booed.

Thereafter Lejeune became an enemy of the left, and of many others in the medical and scientific communities, for his defence of life and his opposition to abortion and contraception.

His daughter Clara wrote in her book: “Here is a man who, because his convictions … was banned from society, dropped by his friends, humiliated, crucified by the press, prevented from working for lack of funding … He lived his faith … and from it he drew courage, kindness, attentiveness to others, and above all, what was most striking: the absence of fear.”

In 1974 Pope St Paul VI named Lejeune a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a title which he regarded as one of his most important. In 1981, Lejeune and his wife Birthe had lunch with Pope St John Paul II on 13 May, the day on which just a few hours later the Pope survived an assassination attempt. And in 1993 Pope John Paul II asked Dr Lejeune to draft the statutes for the new Pontifical Academy for Life.

The Academy was founded on 11 February 1994, and on 26 February Dr Lejeune became its first President. He knew he was suffering from advanced cancer and less than two months later, on Easter Sunday, 3 April, he died.

His cause of beatification and canonisation was opened in Paris in 2007 and, on 21 January 2021, Pope Francis approved the decree of his heroic virtues, making him the Venerable Jérôme Lejeune.

Among his sayings was: “The enemies of life know that to destroy a civilisation, they must first destroy the family at its weakest point – the child”. He was truly a remarkable man.

Related:

Fr Flader Q&A: Fragments of the host in Mass