The French Jewish biologist François Jacob, who died April 19 at age 92, braved imminent death to arrive at explanations of the essence of life. He was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in medicine, along with his co-workers Jacques Monod and André Lwoff, for a discovery that explained how, by using DNA and RNA, cells switch off genes, a key aspect of how life works.
More than just a path-breaking thinker, Jacob was also a lifelong combatant with a highly developed sense of right and wrong. Born in the northeastern French city of Nancy, his grandfather Albert Franck was the “first [French] Jew to attain the rank of general in command of an army corps,” as Jacob proudly explained in “The Statue Within: An Autobiography.”
Small wonder that when Jacob, on his 20th birthday, heard France’s leader, Marshal Philippe Petain, on the radio, advocating collaboration with the Nazi foe, his reaction was one of immediate rebellion and disgust. As Jacob would tell the newspaper Le Monde decades later, “It was impossible… it was impossible to compromise with Hitler.” In his autobiography, Jacob would evocatively describe an innate sense of rectitude as a kind of personal creation: “I carry within me, sculpted since boyhood, a kind of interior statue which gives continuity to my life, which is the most intimate, hardest kernel of my personality. I’ve modeled that statue all my life.”
As a sculptor of character, Jacob abandoned medical studies and escaped Occupied France to go to London, where he was among the first soldiers to rally alongside Charles de Gaulle in the Free French Forces. Even at such tragic moments he characteristically saw humor, as he later recalled to fellow scientist Michel Morange during an online interview: On the boat fleeing France, he met a compatriot who claimed that the only reason he was headed for London was that it was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape [his] wife and mother-in-law.” Inspired by more lofty ideals, Jacob would later be among more than 1,000 fighters to be honored as Companions of the Liberation, a group that included the Resistance martyr Jean Moulin, the author Romain Gary and the industrialist Pierre Louis-Dreyfus (1908–2011), grandfather of “Seinfeld” actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Serving as a battlefield medic, Jacob was twice wounded, including one devastating incident in August 1944 after the Normandy Invasion, when he was struck by dozens of pieces of shrapnel from a German air bomb. A series of operations followed, leaving Jacob with the right side of his body permanently damaged; this made his dreams of being a surgeon physically impossible. Nonetheless, Jacob retained an imposing physicality, with something like the stage presence — and classic Gallic shrug — of the actor Jean Gabin.
When I interviewed him nearly 25 years ago in Paris, Jacob, by then a septuagenarian, was still sturdy and vigorous. He would recount how his colleague Lwoff (1902–1994), another French Jew who fought in the Resistance, could be harshly critical of those with whom he disagreed, while Monod was more socially polished and diplomatic. Trying to emulate Monod during our interview — after Jacob learned from me that an eminent, much honored French physician, whom he knew, had published a book claiming that it would soon be possible to clone Adolf Hitler — he restrained himself with obvious effort from any comment apart from a fixed wry smile to convey his dismayed disapproval.
Jacob’s own writings include “The Logic of Life” and “The Possible & the Actual,” both of them beautifully written and illuminating on heredity and evolution. They earn Jacob an honored place as a writing thinker alongside his friend and fellow Jewish member of the French Academy, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Jacob’s nobility shines from his writings, as in his 1980 speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of de Gaulle’s call to arms to fight the Nazis; in it, he alluded to the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, in which Spartans fought courageously to their deaths against Persian invaders: “Even had Hitler succeeded and Nazi Germany had won the war, [de Gaulle’s] call and the operations executed by some Free French and resistance groups would have survived as testimony, just like the testimony of the words engraved at Thermopylae: ‘Passerby, go tell it in Sparta / that we have died to fulfill their code.’”
Contact Benjamin Ivry at feedback at forward.com