Nobel and Sainthood?

Marthe Gautier

Dr. Jérôme Lejeune

I was curious whether anyone had ever been awarded a Nobel prize in the sciences or medicine, first initiated in 1901, and then later been canonized (sainthood). There are some interesting stories throughout the history of canonized scientists, but most of them antedate 1901. However, Dr. Jérôme Lejeune piqued my interest.  He discovered trisomy 21 as the cause of Down syndrome in 1959.  Read Ref (2).

The science led to prenatal diagnosis of genetic disorders and termination of pregnancy as an option, widely practiced nowadays. Lejeune strongly opposed this practice:

“It was a bitter irony for Lejeune, when the young discipline [of cytogenetics] spawned by his research, permitted the diagnosis of Down syndrome in utero, facilitating the termination of affected pregnancies. A devout Catholic who staunchly opposed abortion, Lejeune hoped that research into the causes of Down syndrome and other genetic disabilities could lead to improved treatment and even cures. He was active in treating Down syndrome patients, counseling their families, and advocating against abortion. In 1994, Pope John Paul II appointed him founding president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Lejeune’s views were well known in the scientific world. At the William Allan Memorial Award ceremony, instead of presenting the customary lecture on research, Lejeune gave a talk called “On the Nature of Men,” during which he noted that “geneticists have not broken the secret of the human condition, and … scientific arguments are of little help in ethical issues.” He ended with an impassioned rejection of genetics as a basis for terminating pregnancies. Afterward, he reportedly told his wife, “Today, I lost my Nobel Prize in medicine.”  Lejeune, who died in 1994, never got the call from Stockholm.”

However Lejeune’s chances of becoming a Saint are still alive, see (1). On 21 January 2021, Pope Francis declared Lejeune’s heroic virtues, and Lejeune was named “Venerable”.

But there is a twist to the story. Second author on the original 1959 paper, Marthe Gautier,  published an article in Human Genetics at the 50thanniversary of the discovery, stating that she, not Lejeune, made the first observations. She writes that she did not have the equipment capable of reliably documenting the discovery, so she “entrusted the slides to Lejuene…I was too young to know the rules of the game. … I suspected political maneuvering, and I was not wrong…I felt cheated in every respect,” 

This reminds us of the fate of Rosalind Franklin,  who was the British researcher who took the famous “Photograph 51” that gave James Watson and Francis Crick crucial information on which they based their model of the double-helix structure of DNA. Franklin died before the pair, plus Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1962. Watson disparaged Franklin in his best-selling book,The Double Helix, but now admits that had she lived, she should have shared the prize.

Is Lejeune an example of a case of “selective morality”? Lejeune seems to have picked and chosen when to have a moral stance.  To him, abortion was morally inadmissible.  But taking advantage of a young inexperienced female colleague and possibly presenting her scientific data as his own, seems to have been morally permissible.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%A9r%C3%B4me_Lejeune
  1. https://www.science.org/content/article/updated-scientist-saint

About D. Posnett MD

Emeritus Prof. of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College
This entry was posted in Religion & tolerance, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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