NY ENCOUNTER/ Jérôme Lejeune: The Scientist-Saint
Jérôme Lejeune attended the Rimini Meeting in 1990
In hearing the family's recollections, one is struck by Lejeune's keen awareness of his vocation and of a great capacity for affection, for his family, friends and especially his patients. Even while he relied firmly on scientific evidence, it was his faith, his widow affirms, that gave him his awareness. Although he traveled widely, his family felt that he was always present to them. He had breakfast, lunch and dinner at home every day and always rode his bicycle to the hospital. He carved wooden ring rosaries and handed them out. He was approachable to everyone, from children to parents to colleagues.
At the time of Lejeune's key discovery, the first illness traced to a chromosomal anomaly, children with Downs were "hidden" according to Gaymard. They were stigmatized, as their mothers were thought to have syphilis, and they were denied an education. The discovery that a mental disease could have a genetic cause offered new hope. While other doctors called these children "monsters" and advised parents to institutionalize their children, Lejeune helped them accept the child as their own and not just as a disease, asking first for the little one's name and placing the child on the mother's knees before starting an examination. He called his patients the "disinherited" because their genetics were not intact and they were often rejected by society.
He affirmed the uniqueness of humanity based on the one characteristic that, unlike communication and compassion, we do not share with animals, which is wonder: "The ability to admire exists only in human beings."
In 1972, a campaign for abortion started in France, targeting first the handicapped. A young Downs patient named Pierre came to the office weeping after hearing of this on TV and said to the doctor: "They want to kill us. You've got to defend us. We're just too weak, and we don't know how." Lejeune was moved by this plea and resolved to fight for their lives and to find a cure for them. His very public stance, at a time when few were yet mobilized against the new propaganda, caused a violent reaction at times. Clara Gaymard describes cycling to school as a child of 12 past graffiti on the town walls, stating: "Kill Lejeune!" and "Lejeune and his little monsters must die."