Tag Archives: Jerome Lejeune

What Did You Do This Summer (Genetics Edition)?

As the summer of 2012 starts to fade into cooler evenings, I have been wondering  – like so many summers before – just where it went and how come I did not accomplish any of the tasks I had so confidently laid out for myself back in early June. When I was a boy, on the last day of school summer would open up before me like a vast ocean of free time and then, in the blink of an eye, it was Labor Day and the seas of time had been transformed into a dripping spout of precious minutes. This got me me to thinking  about the history of genetics.  Are summer’s creative doldrums my peculiar affliction? What have other geneticists done during their summers? To satisfy my curiosity, I compiled a list of summer time achievements and events from the history of genetics, culled from my unorganized and arbitrary historical knowledge.

The most important doodle in the history of ideas in the Western world, here displayed on my iPhone cover (made by my talented daughter Emily Singh). The image is modified from the classic image in Darwin’s Notebook D, Transmutation of species (1837-1838) and is the first graphic expression of his branching species theory of evolution. Just above this doodle, Darwin wrote “I think.”

July 1, 1858: The theory of evolution was inconspicuously introduced to the world when the joint papers of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection) were read to about 30 members of the Linnean Society in

London. By all accounts, the papers generated virtually no discussion. Not even a Tweet. Neither Darwin nor Wallace were in attendance. Wallace, who may be the only Englishman unluckier than Pete Best (who was fired as the Beatles’ drummer in the summer of 1962) was off in New Guinea seeking birds of paradise. Darwin was grieving the death of his beloved tenth child, 19 month old Charles Waring Darwin, who very well may have had Down syndrome.

September 2, 1939: German U-boats torpedoed SS Athenia, the first British ship sunk during WWII. More than one thousand survivors were plucked from the icy North Atlantic waters, including Charles Cotterman, who 10 years later would become the founding editor of The American Journal of Human Genetics and the designer of the journal’s original cover (as told in The Science of Human Perfection, my friend Nathaniel Comfort‘s soon to be published book on the history of medical genetics). Ironically, on board the rescue ship City of Flint was one James V. Neel, the great geneticist and founder of the Heredity Clinic at the University of Michigan where Neel and Cotterman collaborated during the 1940s. The summer of 1939 also saw Cuba and the US deny entry to a thousand Jewish refugees aboard the the SS St. Louis, who had escaped the Nazi horrors only to be sent back to Europe. One of the passengers on board was a teenage Arno Motulsky, who would later found the medical genetics department at the University of Washington, and author a classic human genetics textbook and numerous research papers. The story of the SS St. Louis was later told in both film and book as The Voyage of the Damned.

August, 1947Sheldon Reed succeeded Clarence Oliver as the director of the Dight Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota. The rest is genetic counseling history.

July 15, 1949: James Neel published his classic paper The Inheritance of Sickle Cell Anemia in Science (actually, the inheritance of sickle cell anemia was first reported 26 years earlier by W. H. Tallifero and J.G. Huck).

July 6, 1957; August 3, 1957; August 30, 1958: R.A. Fisher, the great statistical geneticist and one of the leading architects of the modern theory of evolution published 3 papers (in The British Medical Journal and Nature) claiming that cigarette smoking and lung cancer were genetically linked (“… an error has been made of an old kind, in arguing from correlation to causation”). Fisher’s arguments formed a key component to the tobacco industry’s strategy to deny the health risks of cigarettes. Fisher was paid a small fee to serve as a scientific consultant for the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Standing Committee.  He wrote the papers in response to a paper authored by the British Medical Research Counsel in Lancet in June of 1957 that stated that the recent increases in lung cancer could be largely attributed to cigarette smoking. Fisher strongly denied that the money he was paid could possibly influence his views. Talk about blind spots.

August 20-27, 1958: Jérôme Lejeune first reported the underlying chromosomal basis of Down syndrome at the X [tenth] International Congress of Genetics at McGill University in Montreal. The finding was published 4 months later in January, 1959.

June 26, 2000: US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair jointly announced the completion of the first draft of the human genome.

Well, I guess I don’t have the excuse that geneticists never do anything important during their summers. Next year I will have to get more serious about pursuing my genetic exploits. But, hey, I have nine more months to ponder that.


Filed under Robert Resta

p + q = Solved, Being the True Story of How the Chromosome Got Its Name

A few weeks ago I discussed different stories we have come to tell about the origins of the convention of using “p” and “q” to identify the chromosomal short and long arms, respectively (L’histoire de p et q: Urban Legends of Cytogenetics). That posting created quite a bit of discussion, particularly on the Cytogenetics Listserv. Several cytogenetics colleagues forwarded a comment from their listserv that should stand as the definitive story of how p & q became established as official cytogenetic nomenclature.

The True Version was related by someone who was in the room when the decision was made. In my previous post I alluded to the Battle of Hastings. That imagery was apparently not far off from the truth; one conference attendee reported that at times the session seemed like World War 2 1/2. As I had suspected, the 1966 Chicago Conference* was the scene of the crime. The suspects included some important figures in the history of medical genetics: Klaus Patau, Jérôme Lejeune, and Lionel Penrose.

Klaus Patau first described the clinical and cytogenetic basis of trisomy 13 in 1960, along with his wife Eeva Therman (the Finnish cytogeneticist who was sometimes called Mrs. X Chromosome), the great dysmorphologist Dave Smith, and two other authors. Patau originally worked at Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and then went on to a long and illustrious career at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

France’s Jérôme Jean Louis Marie Lejeune is known for his lifelong devotion to the study and care of people with Down syndrome. He was a devout Catholic and a friend and advisor to Pope John Paul II. In 1959, Lejeune, along with Raymond Turpin and Marthe Gautier, were the first to report the underlying cytogenetics of Down syndrome. Gautier, a physician who worked in Turpin’s laboratory at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, first thought of the idea to karyotype a patient with Down syndrome patient and noted the presence of an extra chromosome in the cells cultured from a skin biopsy.  Lejeune identified the culprit as the twenty-first chromosome. Decades before, several scientists had suggested that Down syndrome might have a cytogenetic basis, including Petrus Waardenburg, Guido Fanconi, and Lionel Penrose, but the technology was not available at the time to test the theory.

Lionel Penrose, the longtime Galton Chair at the Galton Laboratory at University College London, was one of those great polymaths that England seems to be a breeding ground for. He was a psychiatrist, chess master, mathematician, medical geneticist, and, among other things, proposed a method (now called Penrose’s Law) for fairly allocating votes among countries in international organizations like the UN. He statistically established the association between advancing maternal age and an increased risk of Down syndrome.

Back in Chicago, the nomenclature session lasted many hours. Initially, “s” and “l” were recommended for the chromosomal short and long arms. Patau countered with “k” for kurz (German for “short”). Lejeune strongly argued for “p” for petite. This was followed by arguments about naming the long arm, with the concern that “l” could easily be confused for the number 1. In the wee hours of the morning, Penrose entered the room, wanting to know why the session had not yet ended. After hearing about the difficulties, he offered p & q because they were linguistically neutral, and because p + q = 1, evoking the idea that a short arm and a long arm together make one whole unit.

So it turns out that the True Story is closest to Version 4, what I labeled The Hardy-Weinberg version in my earlier post, but it also contains elements of Version 1 (The French Connection) and Version 2 (Francophones vs. Anglophones). Alas and alack, Version 3 (The NY Typesetter’s Error) appears to have no basis in truth, though it is still a good story. Interestingly, the results of the Voting Poll in my previous posting indicated that most people thought The French Connection was the correct story (garnering about 62% of the 211 votes cast by April 30th), whereas the Hardy-Weinberg story came in a distant third at about 11%, with The Francophones vs. The Anglophones attracting 19%, and the New York Typesetter’s Error coming in last with about 8% of the vote.

I guess that when it comes to history, there’s no such thing as The Truth, only distorted versions of it that over time become mistaken for the real thing. Of course, what is really interesting about history is not The Truth so much as the fact that we need to tell stories about our past, and those stories reflect complex personal, psychological, educational, and sociological factors.

* – Chicago Conference (1966): Standardization in Human Cytogenetics: Birth Defects. Original Article Series, Vol 2, No 2, New York, The National Foundation (1966).

Thank you to my colleagues from the Cytogenetics Listserv for forwarding the communication, and to the many readers of the DNA Exchange who took the time vote on The True Story and share their own stories.


Filed under Robert Resta