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Venerable Doctor Jerome Lejeune

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Doctor Lejeune was born in Montrouge, a suburb of Paris in 1926 and studied medicine at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or French National Center for Scientific Research) before becoming a researcher there. Doctor Lejeune joined a research department headed by Dr Raymond Turpin. Dr Turpin suggested that Dr Lejeune focus his research on Down Syndrome and the root causes. The two noticed a connection between an individual's characteristics and their dermatoglyphs, the fingerprints and lines on the hands. As they researched, they deduced that their dermatoglyphic anomalies began to appear during embryo formation, hinting at at a chromosomal accident cause. Together with a colleague by the name of Dr. Marthe Gautier, Doctor Lejeune began to count the number of chromosomes in children with Down Syndrome.

On May 22, 1958, Dr. Lejeune confirmed the presence of 47 Chromosomes in a child with Down Syndrome - only two years after Doctors had proven the number of chromosomes in humans to be 46. His findings were initially met with skepticism but were confirmed on January 26, 1959, when the French Academy published the paper presenting three case studies with the extra Chromosome.

A few months later, on March 16 of 1959, the Academy of Sciences confirmed the first paper with a larger case study consisting of nine children. This was followed a month later by a English team who corroborated the results, citing the original paper by Doctor Lejeune and his team. The syndrome was now officially recognized as trisomy 21. Doctor Lejeune continued his work with genetics (now a new discipline, cytogenetics) by discovering Cri du Chat syndrome being caused by a missing segment in chromosome 5 and 18q-syndrome, a loss of the distal portion of chromosome 18. A group of American scientists flew to France in 1962 to perform an independent study to verify the initial trisomy 21 findings - when they came to the same conclusion, Doctor Lejeune was presented with the Kennedy Prize in person from President John F. Kennedy.

Doctor Lejeune was appointed to the chair of human genetics at the Paris School of Medicine in 1964 - this post was created when the discovery was made and Doctor Lejeune was the first to fill it. These posts are almost always filled through a competitive residency examination - only those who contribute to groundbreaking discoveries are named professor's of medicine without the examination.

Doctor Lejeune met with thousands of families, giving them counsel on down syndrome and helping them to see a new perspective not in the world at the time - that these men and women diagnosed with trisomy 21 were created in God's image for eternity, just like everyone else. Consistently, Doctor Lejeune called children with down syndrome that he met his "dear little ones". A father himself of five, Doctor Lejeune was horrified at the thought that prenatal diagnosis of down syndrome would lead to voluntary abortion. Shortly after winning the William Allan Award (Given by the American Society of Human Genetics, the highest honor in the genetic discipline), Doctor Lejeune gave a speech to colleagues that explicitly questioned the human morality of allowing abortion, specifically with fetal abnormalities. This was a view in direct opposition to many in the genetic community at the time, so much so that after the speech he wrote his wife saying,

"Today I lost my Nobel prize in Medicine"

In 1974, Doctor Lejeune was awarded a membership to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences from Pope Paul VI. After a speech in Paris in 1975, Doctor Lejeune met Wanda Poltawska, the director for the Catholic Institute for the Family in Krakow Poland. He was put in contact through different conferences with the then Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Monsignor Karol Wojtyla. Pope John Paul II met with Doctor Lejeune frequently in Rome and asked him to attend the 1987 Synod of Bishops. Doctor Lejuene and his wife invited by Saint Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981 for a private audience and lunch afterwards. It was on that day, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima that Saint Pope John Paul II survived his first assassination attempt. The news of the attack so upset Doctor Lejeune that he himself would be hospitalized that evening for gallstones.

In 1994, Saint Pope John Paul II asked him to serve as the first president for the Pontifical Academy for Life. Doctor Lejeune initially refused, and the year prior he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The Pope asked one more time, prompting Doctor Lejeune to say

"I will die in action"

Unfortunately, Doctor Lejuene would only serve for 33 days before succumbing to Lung Cancer on Easter Morning (April 3) 1994. As Doctor Lejuene laid on his deathbed, his final words were:

“I was the doctor who was supposed to cure them and, as I leave, I feel I am abandoning them.”

His wife, Birthe, would later write:

“All of the awards he received for his discoveries were meaningless to him, because he had not been able to accomplish that one goal."

But here is a man who, because his convictions as a physician prohibited him from following the trends of the time, was banned from society, dropped by his friends, humiliated, crucified by the press, prevented from working for lack of funding. Here is the one who became, for certain people, a man to be beaten down; for others, a man not worth jeopardizing your reputation with; and for others, an incompetent extremist.


If he suffered, he never let us see it. In the face of insults he used to smile, saying, “It is not for myself that I’m fighting, and so these attacks don’t matter.” … He lived his faith … and from it he drew courage, kindness, attentiveness to others, and above all, what was most striking: the absence of fear.

Saint Pope John Paul II visited Doctor Lejeune's grave in Chalo-Saint-Mars during his visit to Paris for World Youth Day in 1997. In 2007, the cause for canonization was officially opened and in 2012 Mass was held at Notre Dame Cathedral to celebrate the completion of the initial information gathering phase. On Thursday, January 21, 2021, Pope Francis approved the "Heroic Virtues" of Doctor Lejeune, officially recognizing him as venerable.

Today 98% of Down Syndrome diagnosed babies are aborted in Denmark, 77% in France and 67% in the United States. Doctor Lejeune's legacy lives on with the creation of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation in 1996. The foundation has a three pillared approach - Research, Care and Advocacy. The foundation remains the #1 funder for research on Down Syndrome.

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