When Lee Herzenberg remembers the day her son Michael was born, she laughs and calls it a “cool birth.” Her obstetrician was a friend, and she describes it almost like a party -- “a little bit painful, but that you forget very quickly.” Lee even got a kick out of the fact that a resident learned to do an episiotomy on her.
It was November 1961, and she was at the newly christened Palo Alto-Stanford Hospital Center; her husband Len was a biology professor on campus. Like most fathers at the time, he didn’t attend the birth -- which meant he wasn’t there when their new child, Michael, started turning blue.
The nurses whisked the newborn off to the nursery without telling Lee anything was wrong.
It was then that a doctor noticed the characteristic features of Down syndrome: floppy muscles, eyes that slanted upward. They got Michael breathing again, but doctors thought his prognosis was grim. They gave Michael just a few months to live. A daisy chain of physicians was called, and Lee says it was a pediatrics professor who told her husband what had happened. Then Len was dispatched to tell Lee. She remembers the moment with uncharacteristic emotion.
“We hugged each other, and it was a terrible conversation to realize that you’d lost the baby, but the baby was lost,” Lee says now. “We knew immediately what we’d do – we had already made the decision that it was not a good thing to take the baby home, and so we didn’t.”
In the 1960’s -- an era before neurodiversity movements and early intervention programs -- many people still called people with Down Syndrome “mongoloids.” Playwright Arthur Miller institutionalized his son, Daniel, in 1966; a few years later, an article in The Atlantic Monthly argued that “a Down’s is not a person.”
Lee and Len Herzenberg had seen friends struggle with the birth of a child with Down syndrome and even gone with a colleague to an institution, where he dropped off his own infant daughter.
So, they made a choice: Michael would never come home.
But Michael wasn’t lost. Michael’s birth sparked their search for a blood test that has revolutionized prenatal care in this country.
Lee Herzenberg with her son, Michael.
I made the mistake of telling one scientist I was reporting about “Len Herzenberg’s lab.” He corrected me instantly: “Len and Lee’s lab”. Because Lee Herzenberg was “leaning in” decades before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase. At 81, Lee, a professor of genetics, is still running the lab she and her husband founded more than 50 years ago. Len died in 2013.
The lab is a quirky place, even by Stanford standards. Lee rarely sits on chairs, preferring cushions on the floor. She’s often accompanied by her bichon frise, Gigi. Researchers can often be found working in this basement office well into the night.
But Lee Herzenberg isn’t just quirky: she’s one of the few -- possibly the only -- professor at Stanford never to have officially graduated from college. Instead, she trained by her husband’s side, auditing courses while he got his Ph.D. at Cal Tech (women weren’t allowed to attend at the time), and working at his labs at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the NIH.
And the science that’s done here has changed the course of medicine.
The Herzenbergs are best known as the creators of the modern-day fluorescence-activated flow cytometer, or FACS. It was a machine born out of frustration: Len couldn’t stand squinting down a microscope looking at cells.
Before the FACS, a biologist looking at slides could feel like he was playing a really intense round of “Where’s Waldo”, staring at crowds of all kinds of cells, trying to pinpoint the exact one he was looking for. Not only was it annoying, Len Herzenberg worried it wasn’t particularly scientific. He wanted a way to find and describe cells that didn’t rely on his worn out eyes.
The FACS was used to diagnose AIDS - because it can quickly and easily sort out T-cells. The FACS was used to find the first stem cells. When Len Herzenberg died, one colleague told The New York Times that “without Len, tens of thousands of people now alive would not be.”
But in the 1970s, the Herzenbergs were still proving the value of this machine. That’s when they started thinking about using it to create a blood test for Down syndrome.
Len Herzenberg had seen research from Finland claiming it was possible to see a fetus’ cells in a mother’s blood. It was hard to believe. But he knew that the FACS, with its nearly magical sorting capabilities, could figure it out. So he took on a medical student named Diana Bianchi as a research associ