Life’s Paladin: Jérôme Lejeune

Merci, mon professeur, for what you did for my father and my mother. Because of you, I am proud of myself.”

These words, spoken by a young man with Down’s syndrome, were most fitting praise for the scientist who had discovered the genetic cause of his condition. It had long been thought to be due to the misdeeds of the parents, and perhaps even a consequence of syphilis. In 1958, however, a zealous young researcher discovered the extra 21st chromosome in the genes of those who suffered from it. He could hardly have suspected it at the time, but his life, and the world, would be forever changed by the knowledge.

In his early thirties at the time of the discovery, and the happy father of a fast-growing young family, Jérôme Lejeune could hardly have imagined then what would be the greatest significance of his work. True physician that he was, Lejeune was eager to build on the new knowledge and to seek a cure for the condition. Others, alas, many others, would be quick to seek wicked profit from it, and to prey upon the fears of the weak. Today, only 1 in 10 children marked by that extra chromosome is allowed to be born.

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Yet God, ever bountiful in his creativity, is able to bring good out of even the darkest evil. So many men and women in the tragic twentieth century made astonishing discoveries and then proved incapable of responding to the misuse of that knowledge. Not Jérôme Lejeune. With the purity of intention of a Galahad or a Gawain, he spent himself to protect the lives of those whose condition he had explained.

LejeuneIn Paris, he saw patients by the hundreds. “People were often surprised at how available Papa was,” says his daughter, the author of a lovely memoir about him. He was one of those who thrives on work, and from the experience of helping others. His daughter tells us that he loved to repeat the saying of St. Vincent de Paul, “What must one do for one’s neighbor? More.” And like all good physicians, he knew that in addition to knowledge of the art, he needed to be present to his patients, to listen to them, and to offer them timely and wise counsel. The testimony of one couple who were expecting a Down’s child speaks volumes: “He helped us to discover our love as parents.”

In the 1970s, after the legalization of abortion in much of the world, he devoted himself to the pro-life apostolate, with speaking engagements around the globe. Most famously, he appeared in a humble Appalachian courtroom to testify in the famous Tennessee Frozen Embryo Case. The local judge, an honest man, was convinced by the French physician’s account: “The court finds that human life begins at the moment of conception.” A second shot heard round the world? We can only hope.

Justice is an arduous virtue, and those who are dedicated to it will often suffer. So did Lejeune, and his family with him. He was marginalized within the French medical profession, and his dreams of a well-funded laboratory that would pioneer cures for genetic diseases were opposed and frustrated. But he kept up his witness to truth in spite of slander, insults, and threats—the tires of the family car were slashed, and they even had to put up with a lurking form of stalking from time to time. “The battle over abortion left its mark on our adolescence,” his daughter explained: “In certain places we were celebrities, while in others we were avoided like the plague.” He was indeed, as John Paul II said, “a sign of contradiction” to his age.

Perhaps the greatest temptation for Catholics in the West since World War II has been the desire for secular honors. Lejeune had his share of those, including the founding chair of genetics at the University of Paris, but he could not be turned aside by worldly fame. His principled pursuit of justice likely cost him the Nobel Prize. In return, he won greater honors, those conferred by the virtuous. He was named to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Paul VI, and was asked by John Paul II to be the founding president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, which was established just weeks prior to his death in 1994. Then, three years later, the Holy Father made of point of visiting Lejeune’s grave when he traveled to Paris for World Youth Day. It is hard to imagine what could be a higher honor in our day.

The fruit of his witness in the world-wide pro-life movement has been almost immeasurable. Consider this evidence of the power of a single word spoken by a good man: “Jérôme Lejeune came into my life at a crucial moment,” said Dr. John Bruchalski, the founder of the Tepeyac Family Center and Divine Mercy Care. “At the time, I was a promoter of abortion and contraception,” but his testimony in the Tennessee case, “helped me to see the Truth.” “He was a catalyst in my life, for practicing medicine, serving others, and serving God.” So does the mustard seed grow into a great tree. Thousands upon thousands of families have been touched by Dr. Bruchalski and the movement of which he is a part; even now a new clinic modeled after Tepeyac is springing up in Denver, Colorado, to join some dozen others around the United States.

“In the present world situation,” John Paul II affirmed, speaking of Lejeune’s pro-life advocacy, “this form of lay apostolate is particularly necessary.” With the cause for his beatification now in the hands of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, Jérôme Lejeune may someday soon join the ranks of the patron saints of the Culture of Life. Is it too much to hope that in heaven today he is surrounded by the beautiful smiles of the myriads of Down’s syndrome children he labored to save?

To learn more about the Lejeune’s legacy, visit the site of the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation.

  • Christopher O. Blum

    Christopher O. Blum is Professor of History & Philosophy and Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute. He is the editor and translator of St. Francis de Sales’ The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language (Sophia Press).

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