July 24, 2021

Axel Kahn, doctor, geneticist and essayist is dead

Axel Kahn, doctor, geneticist and essayist, died at 76 years of age from cancer, announced the League against cancer on Tuesday, July 6, of which he had been president since June 2019. He himself took the initiative to ” announce the fatal outcome, on May 11, in a press release.

He then granted a series of interviews, in which he expressed his serenity in the face of death, testifying to the experience “Striking” that we live when we know it is very close: “The joy of any moment of beauty is increased tenfold by the assumption that we could never know it again. Unheard-of sensation, immense happiness ”, he wrote on May 14 on his Twitter feed, next to flowers and a rainbow.

Born September 5, 1944 in Petit-Pressigny (Indre-et-Loire), Axel Kahn has for father the philosopher Jean Kahn (1916-1970) and for mother Camille Ferriot (1914-2005). He is the brother of journalist Jean-François Kahn, six years his senior, and chemist Olivier Kahn (1942-1999). Their lineage includes an Alsatian Jewish paternal grandfather, admirer of Georges Clemenceau and layman, and an anti-Semitic maternal grandmother refusing to meet their father. Axel Kahn loses the Catholic faith in contact with the Jesuits, but he will forge himself “A morality without transcendence”, an atheistic humanism “Which ultimately is quite close to that of Christians”, he will find at the end of his life.

The suicide of his father indelibly marks the young man, especially since this unexpected gesture is coupled with a message addressed to him alone in a posthumous letter: “Be reasonable and human. “ Injunction “Extraordinarily vague”, and who will question him throughout his life.

First director of the Cochin Institute

Axel Kahn did medicine “By elimination”, so as not to compete with “The four Kahn men”. It was hematology (1974), a discipline that led him to devote himself to research: in 1976, he joined Inserm as a biochemist, integrating a pathological enzymology unit within the Cochin hospital, in Paris. It was there that he spent most of his scientific career, putting the tools of genetic engineering at the service of understanding enzymatic abnormalities involved in particular in blood diseases. He then became interested in the potential of gene therapies.

Its research activities are accompanied by the assumption of administrative responsibilities. He thus became the first director of the Institut Cochin (2002-2007), before being elected head of the University of Paris-V Descartes (2007-2011). He will deny having been alerted, before the end of his mandate, on the management of the body donation center housed by it, after the revelation in November 2019 by L’Express unworthy conditions in which corpses intended for anatomical research were treated there.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Paris-Descartes “mass grave” affair: one year after the start of the scandal, the anger of families

Before that, he chaired the Biomolecular Engineering Commission, responsible for evaluating applications for the cultivation of genetically modified organisms, and from which he resigned in 1997, when the Juppé government banned the cultivation of transgenic maize in France. , to which he was favorable. His immediate appointment as deputy scientific director for life sciences at Rhône-Poulenc (1997-1999), a company involved in these industrial developments, will mar its independence on the subject in the eyes of some observers.

Support from Martine Aubry

At the same time, Axel Kahn is a member of the National Consultative Ethics Committee (1992-2004), at a time when developments in genetics and reproductive techniques fueled intense debate. Cloning, genetic tests, gene therapies: the clarity of its interventions and its sense of pedagogy make it therefore a “Good customer”, he said, prized by the media – he himself will be the co-founder of a scientific journal, Medicine / Science.

He is opposed to genetic tests in female athletes or in the context of family reunification, as well as the patentability of genes or therapeutic cloning. He believes that germline gene therapy, promoted by transhumanists, ultimately aims to “increase” the human species – a project “Necessarily unequal”, and so “Philosophically open to criticism”. Considering that “The individual is not just about his genes”, he notably fights against the reductionist positions of Nicolas Sarkozy when the latter considers that pedophilia or suicidal tendencies among young people have a genetic origin.

Read the 2018 interview: “Impossible to know which will be the good genes in two centuries” according to Axel Kahn

This opposition is not only scientific: in 2012, Axel Kahn, support of Martine Aubry, compared the rally organized by the outgoing president at the Trocadéro to a “Nuremberg of the little one”, before regretting this analogy. The high school secretary to the Communist Youth, inserted in the PCF until 1977, will keep his heart to the left, even after the Mitterrandian “turn of rigor” of 1983. In 2012, invested by the Socialist Party in a second district of Paris traditionally acquired on the right, he lost to François Fillon in the second round.

Author of thirty books

He will say that he twice refused the post of Minister of Research, not seeing “Under constrained circumstances” what he could bring. The difficulties of the sector were only too familiar to him: in 2004, he was among the « mandarins » – the word is his – who are mobilized in the movement “Save research”, asking Claudie Haigneré for better funding for the scientific world in general and for the Cochin Institute in particular.

A tireless walker, he draws some of his essays from his wanderings. He is the author or co-author of some thirty books – on ethics, biotechnologies, morals, or sometimes autobiography. The last, And the good in all this? (Stock), was released in March.

Read the op-ed: “Covid-19 is not the source of drug shortages, it worsens them”

In recent months, Axel Kahn had increased his appearances in the media on the occasion of the Covid-19 pandemic, distilling his advice on the management of the health crisis. This commitment was motivated in particular by the defense of people with cancer: “Delays in diagnosis, postponement of operations, nosocomial infections: they are collateral victims among the hardest hit”, he explained in the last interview given to the World, February 28. He wondered what his generation had “Missed” so that the prevailing discourse vis-à-vis the pandemic is so contaminated by the“The most total irrationality” and by conspiracy.

Read the big interview: Axel Kahn: “I chose elimination medicine”

Axel Kahn in a few dates

September 5, 1944 Birth in Petit-Pressigny (Indre-et-Loire)

2002-2007 First director of the Cochin Institute

2007-2011 President of Paris-V Descartes University

2019 President of the League Against Cancer

2021 Post “What’s the good in all this?” “

2021 Death in Paris