Human Life in the Fast Lane: Conversing with Jérôme Lejeune

In early June 1978, I picked up Dr. Jérôme Lejeune at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport; he was to address an international conference on human life issues at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.  I knew Dr. Lejeune only by reputation: pediatrician specializing in the treatment of children with chromosomal anomalies and renowned geneticist who had discovered the cause of Down’s syndrome some 20 years earlier. When I met him, he was professor of Genetics at the University of René Descartes in Paris. Until his death in 1994, he would focus his work and research on preventing and treating Trisomy 21, the cause of Down’s syndrome. 

Prior to heading northwest to St. John’s, we stopped at the University of Minnesota where Dr. Lejeune gave a lecture to medical students on the biochemical elegance of DNA and RNA.  He was obviously in his element—a quiet confidence and wonderful sense of humor underlay his love and gift for sharing an enormously complex, microcosmic world. At the close, the students clapped with gusto.

Back on the road, he asked about my life and work at St. John’s University.  His interest in what I was doing took me by surprise.  I burbled something about my responsibilities, then countered with questions about his life and research. What ensued was a fascinating tour of the beginnings of human life: helical structures, DNA replication, the unbelievably intricate and dynamic world of genetics.

After many years of chromosomal research, Dr. Lejeune believed that our human building blocks could not have come to be purely by chance. For him, the pattern was too wonderfully complex, yet singularly structured, to have randomly “happened,” regardless the number of eons. And he expressed the hope that someday he would be able to shed more light on the intricate underpinnings of the design itself.

For the next hour plus, I soaked up as much as I could.  What impressed me more than Dr. Lejeune’s knowledge, was his person.  He was passionate but not the least pedantic.  He obviously loved life.  Whatever the topic, he was thoroughly engaged and therefore engaging.  Every now and then he would let his French sense of humor bubble to the surface.  At one point, with a wry smile and eyes twinkling, he quipped that his house in Paris was older than the United States.  My face said you-have-to-be-kidding, and he laughed, adding that he always got a rise from Americans with that historical bit of truth.

Dr. Lejeune was a man of faith.  Indeed, he exuded faith… in life, in science, in God.  He saw no barriers, no compartments, no built-in contradictions amidst “levels” of reality, from the biological to the spiritual.  As a Renaissance man and Catholic scientist, he was not behind the front lines; he was in the front trenches.

Suddenly, we were at St. John’s—an hour and a half drive compressed into what seemed like a minute and a half sprint.  The wonder of the microcosmic universe at warp speed.


In April of 1981, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee held hearings on the question, “When does human life begin?”  Among the experts who testified was Jérôme Lejeune, M.D., Ph.D.   Below are excerpts from his testimony:

“… Thanks to a refined sonar-like imagery, Dr. Ian Donald, from England, a year ago [1980] succeeded in producing a movie featuring the youngest star in the world, an 11-week-old baby dancing in utero.  The baby plays, so to speak, on a trampoline!  He bends his knees, pushes on the wall, soars up and falls down again.  Because his body has the same buoyancy as the amniotic fluid, he does not feel gravity and performs his dance in a very slow, graceful, and elegant way, impossible in any other place on the Earth.  Only astronauts in their gravity-free state can achieve such gentleness of motion.  (By the way, for the first walk in space, technologists had to decide where to attach the tubes carrying the fluids. They finally chose the belt buckle of the suit, reinventing the umbilical cord.)

“When I had the honor of testifying previously before the Senate, I took the liberty of referring to the universal fairy-tale of the man smaller than the thumb.  At two months of age, the human being is less than one thumb’s length from the head to the rump.  He would fit at ease in a nutshell, but everything is there: hands, feet, head, organs, brain, all are in place.  His heart has been beating for a month already. Looking closely, you would see the palm creases and a fortune teller would read the good adventure of that tiny person.  With a good magnifier the fingerprints could be detected.  Every documentable human factor is available for a national identity card.

“With the extreme sophistication of our technology, we have invaded his privacy.  Special hydrophones reveal the most primitive music: a deep, profound, reassuring hammering at some 60-70 per minute (the maternal heart) and a rapid, high-pitched cadence at some 150-170 (the heart of the fetus).  These, mixed, mimic those of the counter-bass and of the maracas, which are the basic rhythms of any pop music.

“We now know what he feels, we have listened to what he hears, smelled what he tastes and we have really seen him dancing full of grace and youth.  Science has turned the fairytale of Tom Thumb into a true story, the one each of us has lived in the womb of his mother.

“And to let you measure how precise the detection can be: if at the beginning, just after conception, days before implantation, a single cell was removed from the little berry-looking individual, we could cultivate that cell and examine its chromosomes.  If a student, looking at it under the microscope, could not recognize the number, the shape and the banding pattern of these chromosomes, if he was not able to tell safely whether it comes from a chimpanzee being or from a human being, he would fail in his examination.

“To accept the fact that, after fertilization has taken place, a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or of opinion.  The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention.  It is plain experimental evidence.”

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About John S. Hamlon 9 Articles
John S. Hamlon taught religion, philosophy, physics, and chemistry at the high school level prior to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the Catholic Catechism, marriage, and Christian ethics. He continues to teach theology/philosophy courses for adults at Easter's Faith Formation Center, Sacramento, CA. He has an MA in theology from the University of San Francisco and did doctoral work in systematic theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He was the associate director of the St. Ignatius Institute, University of San Francisco from 1994 to 2001. Prior to that, he was the program director for national and international conferences on NFP, marriage, and family at St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN. He’s the author of A Call to Families: A Commentary and Study Guide for Familiaris Consortio.