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Marthe Gautier, another woman scientist trivialized

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I had known that Jérôme Lejeune was the fellow who had discovered that Down Syndrome was caused by trisomy of chromosome 21, but it seems there were many other things about him I had not known — he was just a name. But there were a few things that set me aback.

Lejeune became not just a renowned researcher but the darling of the French Catholic right-to-life movement.  You can read long flattering Wikipedia biographies in both French and English. He was showered with awards and given a prestigious Chair of Human Genetics at the Paris School of Medicine, bypassing the usual competition.

When prenatal diagnosis became available Lejeune campaigned against it on religious grounds. He became a friend of Pope John Paul II and was appointed President of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Wikipedia), the Catholic think-tank for medical ethics.  He died in 1994.  The Fondation Jerome-Lejeune was established in his honour; there’s an American branch too.  This foundation provides funds for research into Down syndrome and support for families and patients, but only in the context of very strong opposition to abortion.  They’re also campaigning to have Lejeune beatified by the Vatican.

Uh, OK. Ick. One of those Catholics. I am entertained by the thought that if you do good science and happen to be Catholic, though, the church will try to get you beatified.

But then I learned something that really kind of pisses me off. He’s not the guy who discovered trisomy 21. He’s the guy who stole credit for discovering trisomy 21 (sleazy behavior like that may have just fast-tracked him to Catholic sainthood now).

The real discoverer was a woman, Marthe Gautier, who had done all the cell work that led to the identification of the chromosome abnormalities. She got a bit of space and some rudimentary equipment, and cultured cells using serum derived from her own blood. Man, we’ve got it easy nowadays.

For this work she was given a disused laboratory with a fridge, a centrifuge, and a poor quality microscope, but no funding. And of course she still had her other responsibilities. But she was keen and resourceful, so she took out a personal loan to buy glassware, kept a live cockerel as a source of serum, and used her own blood when she needed human serum.

So she set up normal human cells, prepped them for the chromosome squashes, grew Down syndrome cells and did likewise, and was held up by her primitive gear at that point…when Jérôme Lejeune showed up and whisked all of her data away to get it photographed. And then went off to a conference where he announced that he had discovered the cause of Down syndrome, and then published the story with Gautier’s name as a middle author — a paper she did not get to see and knew nothing about until the day before publication.

Lejeune is dead now, but the sleaze continues in his name. There was to be an award ceremony for Gautier — she’s 88 now — at the French Federation of Human Genetics’ (FFGH) seventh biennial congress on human and medical genetics in Bordeaux. Guess who is trying to intimidate the attendees by having a bailiff sent to film the proceedings? Fondation Jérôme Lejeune, of course, because Gautier was intending to give a speech that would affect the memory of Pr. Jérôme Lejeune. I think his foundation is doing a fine job of that already.

It’s very nice that Lejeune at least gave credit to Gautier in the authorship of the original paper, but if you browse the Foundation web page, you discover that (in the creepy mix of pro-Catholic and anti-abortion sentiment mingled with worthy appeals for care and tolerance for Down syndrome people), they repeatedly state that Lejeune is the “discoverer of Down syndrome” — so much so that it’s clear that they attach a great deal of importance on the identity of the discoverer. They don’t seem to attach much importance to the fact that he appropriated the hard work of a woman laboring away under primitive conditions, and do think it very important that she be denied recognition. Lejeune also thought the discovery was worthy of a Nobel prize (no, he didn’t get one), so…Very Big Deal. But not big enough to demand honesty and integrity in its appreciation of who did the work.


By the way, you should read the Lejeune Foundation’s excuses. They are intrinsically horrible. They ask who profits from the dispute, and the answer is…anti-Catholic terrorists.

Is this an attempt at proving that Jérôme lejeune surely can’t have made a major scientific discovery, as he is opposed to abortion and is considered as an “intransigent catholic” (horresco referens)?

This ideological terrorism, currently very popular but whose origin is easily traceable, does not come as a surprise to anyone. The Foundation and the Pr. Lejeune will handle the matter the way it deserves to be handled.

Popular but…easily traceable? handle the matter the way it deserves to be handled? Paranoid persecution complex much?

Also, Gautier is an old woman and her claims are late and not trustworthy.

Comments

  1. raven says

    (sleazy behavior like that may have just fast-tracked him to Catholic sainthood now).

    It doesn’t take much to be a Catholic saint.

    You can be a killer or serial killer and become a Catholic saint.

    1. Saint Thomas More was a serial killer of Protestant heretics.

    2. Saint Roberto Bellarmino burnt Giordano Bruno at the stake and almost torched Galileo for Heliocentrism. There is a Catholic college in Kentucky named after him. I assume the student body is very docile.

    There are some other dubious ways to become a saint.

    1. Mother Theresa Hell’s Angel

    2. Be an ex-goddess. At one time there was a Saint Demeter. Who was just Demeter given a downgrade.

    3. Be imaginary or legendary. A lot of the older Catholic saints apparently never actually lived.

  2. says

    A Nobel prize for Gautier is not out of the question. It can not be awarded posthumously, but it can be awarded many years after the discovery.

  3. says

    Ehh, I don’t know that a cytological discovery like that warrants a Nobel. It sounded more like self-aggrandizement by Lejeune.

  4. maddogdelta says

    Well, she is in good company with outstanding scientists like Rosalind Franklin. I hope, unlike Franklin, she gets more recognition while she is alive.

  5. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    This ideological terrorism

    Ideological terrorism. Do they mean, ‘Attempting to change peoples politics and actions through fear and intimidation, supported by an ideology’? That describes the Catholic and protestant forced-birthers perfectly. ‘We have an ideology (Christianity) and will kill you, or threaten you, or lie about you, to change what you do and how you think.’

  6. David Marjanović says

    It gets worse. As a commenter on the Nature News article points out, Gautier is misspelled “Gauthier” (a name that exists and is pronounced the same) in the paper! If that’s not evidence that she didn’t know about the manuscript, I don’t know what is.

    Horresco referens is “I shudder while telling about it” in Latin.

  7. alisonstreight says

    Shocking, but not surprising. The renowned Dr. Wilder Penfield was guilty of usurping the invention of the EEG by Dr. Herbert Jasper. He got a street named after him in Montreal and got most of the royalties. It seems the misappropriation of the work of underlings is fairly wide-spread and women are almost always considered as lesser scientists. When will integrity count for something?

  8. vaiyt says

    It was not the only, and far for the first time this happened. As I mentioned a few times before, Marie Curie was not the first woman to do Nobel-worthy science, she was merely the first to manage to take credit for it.

  9. says

    Ogvorbis
    Do they mean, ‘Attempting to change peoples politics and actions through fear and intimidation, supported by an ideology’
    No, they mean ‘Opposition to Catholic dogma or making prominent Catholics look bad” same as all the other buzzwords they use.

  10. karmacat says

    Wow. That’s a lot of convoluted arguing just to avoid admitting that they made a mistake. In the end, most people will respect them more if they admit the mistake and correct it quickly. But it definitely seems to be human nature to avoid acknowledging mistakes

  11. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    Dalillama:

    I was trying (incompetently) to point out that the Catholic Church, and many protestant churches, are engaged in ideologicially driven terrorism to convince people that killing women to protect a bunch of cells that might become a human, or forcing a woman to carry a foetus to term when she does not want to be pregnant, is, somehow, a moral right that will keep you out of hell. Sorry.

  12. says

    Oggie
    Your point is also a good one; I just don’t think that the Catholic Church is anywhere nears self-aware enough to recognize the irony. They’re not being two-faced and machiavellian when they accuse opponents of it, they really are just that blinded by theology.

  13. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    Dalillama:

    I wasn’t implying otherwise. Many terrorist groups do not think themselves terrorists. Sorry my writing is shitty.

  14. moarscienceplz says

    And, of course, the Reddit MRAs have got their diapers in a twist over Wikipedia succumbing to feminazi pressure and “revising history”.

  15. woozy says

    Okay. I have to admit a little bit of confusion as to the implication and consequences of filming the session. The article citing indicates its such filming would be a threat and could be used in a libel suit and represented “such strong legal pressure” and was enough to intimidation to cause the FFGH to cancel the presentation. Um, what am I missing? What does filming indicate other than … well, filming?

    Interesting story though. Fascinating read.

  16. keresthanatos says

    Lise Meitner. Both otto han and werner heisenburg were second rate hacks compared to her. We owe so much of or modern world to the concepts she pioneered.

  17. says

    Oggie
    I was aiming for a further cynical crack at the expense of the Catholics; they certainly deserve all the cynicism we can both muster together, and a fair piece more besides.

  18. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Lejeune is the “discoverer of Down syndrome”

    Surely John Langdon Down is the discoverer of Down’s syndrome.

  19. Sili says

    Ehh, I don’t know that a cytological discovery like that warrants a Nobel. It sounded more like self-aggrandizement by Lejeune.

    Of course. But let us dream. It would be such a nice big “fuck you” to the Lejeune thugs.

    And a wonderful Catch 22. After all, the guy himself said it was worthy of a Nobel prize, so they can hardly protest awarding it to Gautier without saying their guy was full of shit.

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    keresthanatos @16:

    Both otto han [sic] and werner heisenburg [sic] were second rate hacks compared to her.

    If you think Heisenberg was a second-rate hack compared to anyone, I’m guessing you don’t know much about his work. You know, one of the creators of quantum mechanics? Starting with this.

  21. woozy says

    keresthanatos @16:

    Lise Meitner. Both otto han and werner heisenburg were second rate hacks compared to her.

    Rob Grigjanis @20

    If you think Heisenberg was a second-rate hack compared to anyone, I’m guessing you don’t know much about his work. You know, one of the creators of quantum mechanics? Starting with this.

    Lise Meitner. I think we can assume keresthanatos understood precisely what she/he was claiming. (Although I’m not sure why Heisenberg was singled out for the comparison.)

  22. Francisco Bacopa says

    Lise Meitner. Both otto han and werner heisenburg were second rate hacks compared to her. We owe so much of or modern world to the concepts she pioneered.

    Gotta agree that Hahn wasn’t so hot, but I think Heisenberg merits his position in the history of physics.

    At any rate, Meitner has an element named after her. People forget who won the Nobel, but the periodic table is forever.

  23. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    People forget who won the Nobel, but the periodic table is forever.

    Which mean IUPAC understood the situation.

  24. says

    t if you do good science and happen to be Catholic, though, the church will try to get you beatified.

    They did that for Galileo, right?

  25. ck says

    handle the matter the way it deserves to be handled

    Presumably this simply means they will seek to continue to use intimidation against this woman and/or anyone who supports her. Lejeune’s legacy must be protected without regard to whether he deserves it or not. In other words, a “if you know what’s good for you…”-type threat although perhaps without the threat of violence (although given history of the anti-abortion movement, violence is never really out of the question).

  26. spamamander, internet amphibian says

    John Langdon Down indeed would be the discoverer- or at least identifier (assuming he didn’t have a woman in the wings getting screwed out of rightful credit!) of the syndrome as a unique set of characteristics different from any other cause of developmental disability. Lejeune is given credit as the identifier of the cause (trisomy 21). There’s a reason it is known as Down syndrome, not Lejeune syndrome.

    All I can say about Lejeune now is… what an asshole.

  27. loreo says

    Ogvorbis, your original comment was clear enough. Holy Mother Church works in fear the way Michaelangelo worked in paint.

  28. rq says

    [aside]

    1. Saint Thomas More was a serial killer of Protestant heretics.

    You know, even as a former catholic, I only found this out about five years ago, and it nearly shocked the pants off me. Because up until that moment, I’d understood saints to be slightly odd but nice people (like Saint Francis, the one who talked to animals) who did more good than evil… And then The Tudors went and showed Thomas More burning protestants, and wow. Talk about a moment of enlightenment.
    [/aside]

    I hope Gautier receives the recognition she deserves. Preferably while she is still alive to see it happen. That would be my wish.

  29. stevem says

    <tangent>additionally: Whether misogynistic or misandric, (Xian or Atheist) aren’t all ummm, “scientists” guilty of putting the _Senior_Scientist_ as the *first* author of every paper xis group publishes; no matter how much xe actually contributed to it? When I was a simple “undergrad” of an academic research/experiment group [high energy particle physics], I would frequently hear all the ‘post-grad PhD-candidates’ griping about where their names were put as a “co-author” of their (own) grad work. Even among the profs, it always amazed me that the Leader of the group [Ting] got the Nobel while the other two did all the work [one did the Theory and one designed all the Detectors I was part of the team, building the detectors], the Leader just secured the funding for the work and got to put his, and only his, name on the work. But I am not trying to justify the usurpation of Gautier’s name, just presenting more examples of the egregious abuse by anyone wanting to get all the credit for all the work their “underlings” did for them. Xian, “pro-lifer”, just adds to the blecchh. </tangent>

  30. stevem says

    As for the Nobel: I’m sure they’ll say “she just took the photos, HE did the discovery, and LED the team to write the paper, blah, blah, blah…The discovery does deserve a Nobel, but only He does, she just helped him, He noticed the 3 21’s in the photos, she just did the photos for him to make the discovery with…”
    —————————–
    Before I give them any more excuses to deny her the recognition she deserves, I’ll be quiet…

  31. says

    I’m always wondering how the teachers at all the Otto Hahn schools in Gemany justify disciplinary actions in cases of cheating and plagiarism. After all, the students are following the lead of the school’s official role-model…

  32. says

    I’m reminded, naturally, of all the arguments about how men have always been the ones to make discoveries, advance civilization, et cetera, far more than women (when women are acknowledged as making any contributions aside from baby making at all), and it makes me wonder how many of our male historical heroes of advancement merely profited on the genius of some woman whose name was cast into the trash bin of history.

  33. David Marjanović says

    aren’t all ummm, “scientists” guilty of putting the _Senior_Scientist_ as the *first* author of every paper xis group publishes;

    Nope. In biology, that guy is the last author: he (rarely she) did the least work (if any), but provided the funding, the lab space, and perhaps the basic idea (possibly half-baked, possibly not).

    …which means that last author is a coveted position among people who are old enough to have their own labs. There are papers with two last authors out there, just like there are papers with two first, three first, or two second authors.

    The first author is whoever did the most work, usually some grad student.

  34. David Marjanović says

    …As I only just noticed, this means – assuming this convention already existed back then – that Lejeune really wanted to give the impression he did more of the work than either of his coauthors.

  35. flex says

    According to the article in Science (pp 720-721, 14 Feb. 2014, Vol 343), Gautier set up her lab to investigate Down syndrome sometime between 1956 when she joined the Armand-Trousseau Hospital and May 1958 when she got her first cell samples.

    She noticed the extra chromosome very quickly, but was unable to identify it or take pictures of it. In June 1958 she gave her slides to Lejeune, who was also studying Down syndrome (using other techniques) to get photographed. Six months later the paper came out identifying the extra chromosome.

    Gautier does not claim she identified which chromosome, an extra copy of chromosome 21, but says she was the first to notice the abnormal count.

    Lejeune was certainly a staunch Roman Catholic who apparently felt horrified that prenatal screening for Down syndrome was possible, used, and may result in abortions. He ended up working on genetic therapies while campaigning against abortion, and the foundation using his name continues this work.

    However, the cancelling of the speech by Gautier apparently was done not by that Jerome Lejeune Foundation, but by the organization which sponsored the speech and medal ceremony the French Federation of Human Genetics (FFGH). The Jerome Lejeune Foundation had a court order to allow them to record the speech, but not to stop it or cancel it. The Jerome Lejeune Foundation apparently feared that Gautier’s speech would “tarnish” the memory of Lejeune who is deceased. An independent reader of the proposed speech believes that it was quite innocuous.

    The Jerome Lejeune Foundation has said it, “bitterly regretted” that the speech was cancelled, but the FFGH said that they wouldn’t allow the speech to occur under the threat of legal suit.

    Certainly Gautier deserves the credit which is due her, but this sounds more like a spat between two organizations rather than an attempt of either to deny her credit. In this instance, it looks like Gautier was caught in the middle.

  36. birgerjohansson says

    Maybe it is time to propose Giles de Rais for sainthood? After all, he hung out with someone who talked with god on a daily basis.
    The child-killing business can be brushed off as…er… the result of ingesting that ergot stuff?