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NY ENCOUNTER/ Jérôme Lejeune: The Scientist-Saint

The brilliant geneticist, doctor and a family man is remembered at the New York Encounter while his campaign for disabled children continues  

Jérôme Lejeune attended the Rimini Meeting in 1990 Jérôme Lejeune attended the Rimini Meeting in 1990

Jérôme Lejeune, the pioneer geneticist who discovered Down syndrome in 1958, ushering in the new field of cytogenetics, was one of the key personalities at the New York Encounter. In fact, he died of cancer in 1994, and has recently become a candidate for canonization. It was Ombretta Salvucci, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, who brought him to the Encounter, via his family, including his widow Birthe and his daughters Clara and Karin. Families with children afflicted by Down syndrome, grateful for the research and support of the Lejeune Foundation, also joined the family for breakfast and Mass.

Salvucci calls Lejeune her "best friend", to whom she appealed for intervention during a crisis at work. She credits his help to change as her "attitude miraculously became one of hope and promise" at work and in her life. She went on to learn more about her "scientist saint" by contacting the Lejeune family. Clara Lejeune-Gaymard offered an account of her father's life at the Encounter, and her memoir, Life Is a Blessing, published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, was reissued at the same time.

Early in his career Lejeune wanted to be a surgeon. After missing the test three times, he moved into research by necessity, as he sought a cure for his young patients suffering from what was then called "mongolism". When I asked his family whether Jérôme typically saw such events as signs, they denied it. On the contrary, they said, he disliked talk of signs, which offended his scientific sensibilities. For an example, they gave the story of how Lejeune, who was one of the first members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, had lunch with Pope John Paul II just hours before the pontiff was shot in St. Peter's Square. Lejeune himself then fell seriously ill with similar symptoms to the pope, resulting in surgery, which turned out to be a case of gallstones. For those close to him, it was evident he was physically suffering together with the Holy Father. But for Lejeune, his arguments were always based on reason and scientific evidence, particularly in his famous campaign defending life from the biological point of conception.