FIMM mourns the loss of fellow scientist and noted human geneticist, Gertjan van Ommen

The genetics world this week mourns the loss of one of the foundational community builders of the genome era Gertjan van Ommen, who passed away on November 7 at the age of 73. In addition to his many roles in the global genetics community, he was a dear and quick-witted friend to many at FIMM as well as a valuable advisor on many collaborative programs throughout our history.

Gertjan van Ommen had a distinguished career as head of the Human Genetics Department at Leiden for 20 years and making seminal contributions to the emerging field of genomics in the context of early gene discovery efforts in neuromuscular and neurodegenerative diseases. Most notably in Duchenne muscular dystrophy where his longstanding commitment from the dawn of the genome era through to the pioneering of novel therapeutic approaches such as exon skipping. Rather than recounting his exploits myself, nothing could replace Gertjan’s own description of the remarkable early days of the genome era and the Duchenne gene hunt, so I would highly recommend this interview taken 10 years ago about those times. 

To many of us, however, Gertjan is best-known, and truly synonymous, with the best of our genetics societies and their goals for society in the large.  He had boundless energy over the past decades for community and consortium building activities, repeatedly taking on thankless leadership and organizational roles with little or no personal benefit to him (and with no doubt considerable opportunity for irritation) – all for the greater good of helping the field of genetics reach its potential. As only he could put it, “I always end up in these chore jobs, and I must say that I like that type of job. What I do like is trying to make people work together and to get across mistrust and transatlantic nausea and all these things because there's a lot of sort of people posturizing against each other for their peers, and it doesn't get a lot of work done.” 

Even in his final weeks he was spurring his Dutch colleagues and many around the EU to ensure the 1 Million+ Genomes Initiative was on course and made sure to help rally support for the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative which was initiated this Spring.  We will acutely feel his absence in these collaborative efforts – and whether in these, or simply the always enjoyable encounters at ESHG, ASHG and any gathering of geneticists, his wry sense of humor, wit and wisdom will be greatly missed.

To quote his own eloquent words again, written to honor the passing of Leena Peltonen, his friend and co-contributor to the collaborative community of European genetics we enjoy and benefit from today – but equally aptly said of him – “today we have lost a great soul mate and a fellow warrior against scientific or social ignorance, laxity and pomp”.  Gertjan for decades stood for building a community – across Europe and the world – in which geneticists would work together to address the needs of society. We must all redouble our efforts to carry his vision forward.

Mark Daly, Director of FIMM