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The Venerable Father of Modern Genetics

The Roman Catholic Church can boast of many notable Catholic scientists and medical professionals going all the way back to Albert the Great in the 13th century. Among the more recent and well known are Fr. Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), who developed the “Big Bang Theory” of the origin of the universe, and Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), who is considered the inventor of vaccines and, of course, pasteurization. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), whose name appears in every biology textbook, was also a Catholic. In fact, like several others, he was a priest. Through Fr. Mendel, all high school biology students learn how dominant and recessive genes are responsible for their blond hair and blue eyes, or, tragically, their cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease.

There is another Catholic physician and scientist whose name should be—and one day will be—just as familiar as these: Dr. Jerome Lejeune (1926-1994), or rather, the Venerable Jerome Lejeune. At one time, Professor Lejeune was quite well known in the United States. He received the first Kennedy Prize in 1962 for his discoveries and, in 1969, the William Allen Memorial Award, the highest award a geneticist could receive. In fact, it was in San Francisco during his acceptance of this award that he sealed his fate. Because of its support for prenatal diagnosis and abortion, he said that the National Institutes of Health should be renamed the National Institutes of Death. It was no surprise to him when he left the podium that his comments hadn’t been well received. He wrote to his wife that night that he had ruined his chance of ever receiving a Nobel Prize.

Lejeune was one of the most important figures in the history of modern medicine. With his discovery in 1958 that Down syndrome is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21, he became the first to correlate a disability to a genetic anomaly. Like Anton von Leeuwenhoek (who peered through a microscope and for the first time saw bacteria and protozoa, realizing they were the culprit in some illnesses), Dr. Lejeune was the first to peer into the nucleus of a cell and discover that chromosomes were the cause of a disability. From that discovery, medicine turned to the genome to seek understanding and treatment for inherited as well as many non-inherited diseases. He had launched the field of cytogenetics, the study of how chromosomes regulate cell behavior and can be the cause of disease.

Read more at Word on Fire 

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