In memory of Professor Albert de la Chapelle (1933-2020) - Folkhälsan
23 December 2020

In memory of Professor Albert de la Chapelle (1933-2020)

Professor, Academician of Science Albert de la Chapelle passed away on Alfred Nobel's Memorial Day December 10, 2020 at age 87. De la Chapelle was an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of human genetics, whose scientific career spans six decades through modern medicine and genetics. During his time, de la Chapelle published over 800 scientific articles.

De la Chapelle’s scientific career started at the Minerva Research Institute in the 1950’s. After his doctoral dissertation in 1962, he became a researcher at the newly established Folkhälsan Institute of Genetics, which he then directed until 2003. He became the first Professor of Medical Genetics at University of Helsinki in 1974. As Academy Professor 1985-1995, he led his research group which was nominated a Center of Excellence of the Academy of Finland. After his retirement from the University of Helsinki in 1997, de la Chapelle was appointed Professor and Director of the Cancer Genetics Research Program at Ohio State University in the United States, where he played a key role in developing the university’s human cancer genetics program.

The early research interests of de la Chapelle were focused on sex determination. In 1964 de la Chapelle became the first to describe a male with the 46 XX karyotype, a finding that 20 years later led to the identification of the gene launching male development. Along with the advances in molecular genetics, de la Chapelle initiated research to identify genes causing the diseases of the Finnish Disease Heritage. This led to the discovery of approximately half of these genes. These ground-breaking results laid the foundation for the Folkhälsan Institute of Genetics to become a world-renowned institute in the field of rare genetic diseases.

Leukemia was among the early research interests of de la Chapelle as well, and he returned back to cancer research later in his career. One of his most important achievements in cancer genetics took place in 1993 when he, in collaboration with researchers from the US, discovered the molecular genetic basis of Lynch syndrome, causing heritable, elevated risk to colorectal cancer. This finding unraveled impaired DNA repair as a new cancer-causing mechanism. The main research interests of de la Chapelle during the last years of his career were focused on thyroid cancer.

During his long scientific career, de la Chapelle received several awards and honors. In 1997 he was elected an Academician of Science of the Academy of Finland, first ever from the medical field. The same year he was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. Just some other of his many awards include Membership of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Honorary Doctorate at the University of Uppsala, and the William Allan Award of the American Society of Human Genetics.

Although the majority of Professor de la Chapelle's work and research took place in Finland, the international science community was very important to him throughout his career. He was a founding member of the European Society of Human Genetics and served on its Board of Directors 1966-1995 and as Chairman 1993-1994. He made several research visits abroad, to Paris, New York and London and later also to Minneapolis and Buffalo, where his wife, Professor Clara Bloomfield, headed the oncology research department at the State University of New York. In 1997, the couple moved to Columbus, Ohio, where they lived together until Clara Bloomfield’s accidental death in early 2020.

De la Chapelle was native in Swedish but also spoke fluent Finnish, English, French and German. The position of the Swedish language in medicine was important to him, both in research and practice. Professor de la Chapelle de la Chapelle served as a Working Member at Samfundet Folkhälsan 1978–2013 and thereafter as a Corresponding Member until his death.

De la Chapelle was born in Tenala, near Ekenäs, Finland. These childhood surroundings remained dear for him and he spent his summers throughout his life in Tenala. In addition to their dedication to science, professors de la Chapelle and Bloomfield shared a genuine interest in art.  De la Chapelle founded a new art museum bearing his name in Ekenäs, a project which completion he will not witness.

De la Chapelle never gave up his interest in science, nor the friendship with his former students. His former students Anna-Elina Lehesjoki and Juha Kere, who both followed in their teacher's footsteps at Folkhälsan, describe de la Chapelle as an outstanding scientific mentor, role model and friend — he was demanding, but simultaneously fair, inspiring and warm-hearted. A large community of colleagues and fellow researchers will miss him dearly.