WASHINGTON — He died one of the world’s greatest scientists, but God’s first.
Such a phrase may rightly describe Jérôme Lejeune, the discoverer of Down syndrome and the father of modern genetics: a scientist who fell from the pinnacle of his career to follow his conscience and baptismal promises to advocate for the lives of persons with Down syndrome.
Servant of God Jérôme Lejeune (1926-1994), who earned international acclaim and honors for his work in genetics, deeply loved children with Down syndrome, and he hoped his 1958 discovery would help treat or cure their condition. But 10 years later, the world was embracing abortion and using his discovery in prenatal diagnoses to abort children with Down syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities.
In 1969, Lejeune received the William Allan Award, the world’s highest prize for work in genetics and made the occasion to speak out against abortion. After that speech, he told his wife, "Today, I lost my Nobel Prize in medicine."
Lejeune’s advocacy for persons with Down syndrome forced him into the wilderness of the scientific world. However, Blessed Pope John Paul II reached out to the French scientist to help him found the Pontifical Academy for Life and named him its first president shortly before Lejeune’s death in April 1994 from lung cancer.
Today, Lejeune is on the path to sainthood, as his cause has moved from the Archdiocese of Paris to Rome.
Aude Dugast, the postulator for Lejeune’s case, spoke with the Register after a talk about Lejeune’s life at the Catholic Information Center in Washington and shared insights into the heroic sanctity of Lejeune and the stage of the canonization process.
(Note: The interview was given in both French and English and is edited for length and style.)
Madame Dugast, why is Jérôme Lejeune such an important saint for our times?
He was truly an apostle of charity, an apostle of life and apostle of the truth. Today, with our world gripped by the culture of death, we really need a person who can show us a way to do the best we can for others. He shows all scientists and physicians that faith and reason are really complementary — that there is no contradiction — and this is so important now. Many persons think that if you want to be a saint, then you can’t be a scientist. Others say that if you want to be a good scientist or a good researcher, then you can’t be Catholic. It’s simply crazy — awful. And he showed that is not true.
What inspired Lejeune to search for the gene that causes Down syndrome?
His motivation was love. He was in charge of these children, and he really was in love with them. He saw it was so hard for them and really wanted to set their intelligence free [from limitations].
So he wanted to find a cure — but realized that before he had the treatment, he must find the origin.
Did he ever imagine at the time of his discovery that people would ever use it for evil purposes?
Oh no, not at all! It was 1958; there was no idea of that. Abortion did not exist officially throughout the world. So it was out of everyone’s mind. Sir Albert Liley, who furnished the [Down syndrome] diagnoses by studying the amniotic fluid, was a very Catholic man also. So Jérôme Lejeune and Sir Albert were very strong Catholics and, later, saw the discovery they made to cure babies was then used to kill them. That upset them, and it was the tragedy of their lives.
Did he feel that in trying to save them he had inadvertently condemned them?
It was a heartache for him that his discovery, which he had made to cure them, was being used to kill them. He did not feel responsible for their deaths … but having discovered [Down syndrome’s cause], he felt the utmost responsibility for the lives of these children.
He was at the height of his career — did he know that this decision to defend their lives would be his downfall in the scientific and academic world?
Yes. He was absolutely conscious of that. He knew that he had a lot to lose, and he lost it. In France in the 1970s, it was terrible. It was a huge battle if you were against abortion. As I said earlier, it was written at Lejeune’s laboratory [by people against him]: “Death to Lejeune and his little monsters!” When he gave talks, people threw tomatoes at him; the violence toward him was just incredible.
He really felt he could not be quiet because he was a physician, their natural advocate and also a Christian. And that is the point: He could have simply shut up and not involved himself with [fighting] abortion. But he chose to speak up, and this is the heroic point of his life: He chose to talk, knowing he would lose everything. At that point, we can see that he chose to follow Christ unto the cross.
Did his heroic sanctity begin at this point? His choice seems so much like that of St. Thomas More.
He loved St. Thomas More! He was one of his favorite saints — and exactly for that reason: St. Thomas More chose to follow his conscience. For Jérôme Lejeune, it was exactly the same.
But I would not say that his sanctity began at that point. I really think that his sanctity began with his baptism. It was because of his fidelity to his baptism that when he had to make one more step, he did it. So what I want to show is that we also can do that by fidelity to our baptism.
How can that witness inspire us today? I think many of us secretly cling to the mistaken idea that holiness is just for monks, nuns or priests.
Exactly for that point. I mean, it was just with his fidelity to his baptismal promise and his mindfulness of the Gospel: “What you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” This is charity. And it was very clear for him you can’t say, “I believe in God!” and not take care of these babies or even say you want to kill them. Because God became flesh — as Jesus — and we believe that each child is made in the image of God. And so if we kill a child, we kill God.
It was absolutely evident for him, and if we have faith, it must also be evident for us. So the lesson is just to follow your faith, follow your charity. And sometimes charity tells you, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ And so, at that point, you have to choose: Do I follow my conscience or do I follow other things? And we all have to do this. But Jérôme Lejeune (in a very, very simple way) always chose his conscience.
How did his marriage also help him on his path to holiness? Our vocations are so essential to following Jesus Christ. Lejeune seemed to think that his wife was his partner in everything in his life, even his discoveries. How did that help him be holy?
I really think Jérôme Lejeune would not have been Jérôme Lejeune without his wife. They are very complementary together, like faith and reason! She is very simple and practical and very faithful, and she loves her husband, and he [loved her] too. They decided together to try to cure these children when they were just engaged. He was never alone — she was always beside him, always to help him, to support him. Sometimes it was hard, especially in the political battles, but she did everything with him.
Where is the canonization process at this moment?
The process has been in Rome for two years now. The diocesan process was finished in 2012. So, now, I have been writing the positio, the book in which I have to show that Jérôme Lejeune practiced all the virtues: theological (faith, hope and charity), cardinal (justice, fortitude, temperance, prudence) and minor virtues: humility, poverty, chastity, obedience.
Are there any miracles right now that have been attributed to him?
Not yet. Right now, we have huge graces. But we don’t have a miracle at this point. We will need a miracle after the positio is finished.
Thank you so much, Madame Dugast. Any final thoughts for our readers as the canonization process moves forward?
Pray. Pray for Jérôme Lejeune’s intercession, especially in times of crisis. It is very important to pray, especially for a miracle. We need a lot of miracles, so we can choose the best one. It is important, because the mass media, especially in France, will do what they can to say a miracle is not a miracle, not true, etc. So we need to pray to be given a perfect miracle.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.