At the age of 87, I have decided to end my silence to defend my husband, Jérôme Lejeune, who died 20 years ago.
The cacophony surrounding him and the discovery of Trisomy 21 is deafening. And yet the archives speak for themselves. I am lucky to have saved and carefully classified all the correspondence between the three protagonists. What do these archives tell us? Jérôme joined the department headed by Professor Raymond Turpin at Trousseau Hospital in 1952. Dr. Turpin assigned him to receive what were then called “Mongolian” patients and conduct research on Mongolism (now called Trisomy 21). In 1958, the year the extra chromosome was discovered on the chromosome 21 pair, Jérôme was not a novice. He already had 42 publications to his credit, including seven on Mongolism, and an excellent reputation in his field.
When Marthe Gautier contests Jérôme’s role in this discovery, 20 years after his death, she neglects to mention that Jérôme had been working for years in close cooperation with Professor Turpin, who considered him the main driving force in this research.
It was Raymond Turpin who suggested Jérôme should be acknowledged as the first author of the publication.
I have a letter Dr. Turpin wrote to Jérôme in 1958, congratulating him for his work and stating that Marthe Gautier’s count was still 46 chromosomes, whereas Jérôme, who noted all his observations in his laboratory notebook, had counted 47 for the first time in May 1958 on one patient. In another letter, this one from Marthe Gautier to Jérôme, she asks him to hurry back from his trip so that the research work can move forward. Reading this correspondence, which is always courteous, the role and contribution of each one is obvious.
Marthe Gautier knows very well that throughout his carrier Jérôme never forgot to mention her in his acknowledgements. This is clear from the text of his inaugural lecture in 1965.
Objectively, the study of the archives contradicts the recent remarks by Marthe Gautier.
Then why the relentless attack on Jérôme today? The reason is simple. He was a geneticist, and as such, he knew that life began at the instant of conception. He was a doctor from the Hippocratic School, and as such, he refused to do away with the life of human beings once they were conceived. In 1969, in San Francisco, on the day he received the William Allen Memorial Award, he publicly denounced the threat of science on life and the excesses of the culture of death.
His speech caused a scandal, but his courage and consistency commanded everyone’s admiration. While continuing his research, he had run the risk of antagonizing certain scientists to remain free to defend the unique, vulnerable inchoate human being. He knew that his stand might well cost him the Nobel Prize. He was courageous and I was proud of him. Indeed, he was never forgiven for the positions he took.
The opposition to Jérôme’s person was to wait years after his death to come out once again; today it is manifesting itself by attacking the man and making him look like an opportunist and usurper. Without being able to defend himself, he is being discredited for opposing selective medicine and research that leads to death, and in the process, ridiculed for his commitment to serving life.
At 87, I am not about to give up and allow insinuations and untruths to tarnish the image of someone who served his patients and the most vulnerable people with all his intelligence and his heart. Let us not forget that he was a source of pride for Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris and French research. How can we believe that one conflicting voice could be right – alone – against the thousands of patients he treated and the families he comforted, against the hundreds of colleagues he frequented, who were often edified by his intellectual and moral qualities, against the hundreds of fellow researchers, peer reviews and various French and foreign juries that examined his scientific work for 40 years, against dozens of academies and universities that received him and honoured him all over the world?
The disturbing truth is that he was a sign of contradiction. In front of the lie that kills, his honor lay in not remaining silence. But his work and his reputation are a testimony to him.
No longer able to defend himself, he is being discredited for opposing selective medicine and research that leads to death, in the process, ridiculed for his commitment to serving life.