The following comes from a June 21 posting on MercatorNet.com.
It is August 1969 in San Francisco and Professor Jerome Lejeune is addressing the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.
Ten years earlier he had discovered the genetic cause of Down Syndrome, when he saw under his microscope in a Paris laboratory the third little mark on the 21st chromosome. In 1962 he received the Kennedy Award from the hands of President John F Kennedy for his work with handicapped children.
But the drama of his life was that his discovery of trisomy 21 would lead to a medical holocaust, national health systems giving huge funds to track down and eliminate these children before they could be born.
Invited to America to receive the highest distinction in genetics for his work, the William Allen Memorial Award, Lejeune decided to use this occasion to speak out in defence of “his patients” — the children and their parents who already came from all over the world to seek his advice and help in Paris.
Colleagues tried to persuade him just to address the scientific questions. But Lejeune had given months of reflection to his speech. He had counted the cost.
In his soft, very precise voice he said : “For thousands of years, medicine has striven to fight for life and health against disease and death. Any reversal of this order would entirely change medicine itself.”
That night he wrote to his wife, “Today I lost my Nobel Prize.”
As he had foreseen, Lejeune was ostracised by the scientific, medical and political elite in France. His research funds were withdrawn. In the 1960s doctors had been proud to belong to the « Lejeune team », but in the 1970s it was social suicide. During the campaign to legalise abortion in France in 1975 slogans were painted on the walls of the Sorbonne : “Death to Lejeune”. His own children saw these attacks against their father.
These key moments of his life are explored in a recent film made by François Lespés and titled in English, Jerome Lejeune: To the Least of These My Brothers and Sisters (a reference to Christ’s words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren…”).