Professor Leena Peltonen-Palotie: 1952-2010

Professor Leena Peltonen-Palotie, Head of Human Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute passed away on 11 March 2010 at her home in Finland after a long and characteristically courageous battle with cancer. She was 57.

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Leena Peltonen-Palotie: 1952-2010
Leena was a leading human geneticist of her era, holding at her death appointments at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland and the Broad Institute, Cambridge, USA. In the past six months, she was honoured with the Carter medal from the Clinical Genetics Society for her outstanding contribution to clinical genetics and recognition as Academician of Science, the highest honour in her home country.

She had a hugely distinguished career, publishing more than 500 research papers as well as almost 80 review articles and serving on the Boards of the European and American Societies of Human Genetics and a dozen other scientific organisations. Her knowledge and wisdom were called upon for national and international committees on population genetics, clinical genetics and ethics of genetics research. She always saw her research firmly in the context of the needs of society.

Leena graduated MD in 1976 and PhD in 1978 from the University of Oulu, Finland. She carried out postdoctoral research at Rutgers Medical School, New Jersey after which she returned to Finland, becoming Professor at the National Public Health Institute in 1991 at the age of 39. In 1998 she took up a new challenge, returning to the US to establish a major genetics research centre at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), which she led for four years. In 2002 Finland once more called and Leena returned to a Professorship in the University of Helsinki and the National Public Health Institute. She rose in influence and was invited to a Visiting Professorship at the Broad Institute, one of the world’s leading genetics institutions.

In 2007 she assumed the position of Head of Human Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to be held concurrently with her roles in Finland and the US. Her indefatigable style meant that she was able to succeed in these three demanding roles.

Leena was a visionary geneticist, champion of population genetics and public health, firmly supporting public health strategies alongside clinical measures to improve human health. Leena’s return to her European roots reflected her personal commitment to the understanding and conquest of genetic disease and her vision of the importance of European population genetics in this quest. She worked tirelessly to bring together human genetics activities across Europe. The Sanger Institute and the progress of human genetics globally are diminished by her passing.

Leena’s vision and charisma have been inspirational to many, particularly the younger generation. As a teacher and scholar she has fostered the next generation of geneticists, supervising more than 70 PhD students. As Head of Human Genetics at the Sanger Institute, she has recruited a cadre of young faculty and energised our scientific programmes. Her legacy, though, is international: she has transformed science and scientists where she has left her touch. It is also personal: she evinced strong support and respect in all those with whom she worked.

Although this short tribute is largely about Leena’s research, Leena the person has left just as strong an impression on all who met her. Leena was much more than a colleague to many of us at the Sanger Institute and she was an ardent supporter of scientific excellence beyond her sphere of human genetics. Her disarming smile, her charisma and the flash of colour as she moved across campus will provide lasting memories for her friends and colleagues on the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus. These essences of her spirit, admired by so many, will be remembered.

More information

Leena’s death has been marked by the Academy of Finland, with details of tributes

The Institute of Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) has opened a webpage ( for people to pass on condolences for Leena.

Leena is awarded national honour Academician of Science

Leena is awarded the Carter Medal by the Clinical Genetics Society

Leena is appointed to Head Human Genetics at the Sanger Institute

Selected websites

  • The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which receives the majority of its funding from the Wellcome Trust, was founded in 1992. The Institute is responsible for the completion of the sequence of approximately one-third of the human genome as well as genomes of model organisms and more than 90 pathogen genomes. In October 2006, new funding was awarded by the Wellcome Trust to exploit the wealth of genome data now available to answer important questions about health and disease.

  • The Wellcome Trust

    The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. We are independent of both political and commercial interests.