Lauded gene therapy pioneer Jean Bennett ’76 to speak at Class Day

Jean Bennett ’76
Jean Bennett ’76

Yale College alumna Dr. Jean Bennett ’76 — a pioneer in the field of gene therapy who has dedicated her career to restoring eyesight — will deliver the 2020 Class Day address, headlining a virtual celebration of Yale College traditions typically observed on campus. Her remarks will cap off a weeklong slate of special Class Day 2020 programming organized by a committee of graduating seniors. The speech will broadcast on Sunday, May 17, at 2:30 p.m. through a dedicated Yale 2020 website scheduled to go live the prior week. Additional details, including the URL, will be forthcoming.

It is an extraordinary honor to be able to participate in the celebration of the achievements of the Yale Class of 2020,” said Bennett, the F.M. Kirby Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania. “This class brings profound meaning to the number 20/20 as its adventurous members plan the first virtual Class Day celebration. The Class of 2020 will provide an entirely new focus on the world, which is exactly what we need right now.”

With her husband, Dr. Albert Maguire, and colleagues, Bennett created a gene therapy for Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a hereditary disease that causes early-onset and progressive vision loss. In 2017, the treatment became the first-ever gene therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, paving the way for other forms and applications of gene therapy.

In her life’s work, Jean Bennett has modeled to our students the possibilities that come from recognizing a need and fearlessly working to address it, demonstrating that scholarship and service can — and should — go hand in hand,” said President Peter Salovey. “Her Class Day address will catalyze Yale’s newest graduates to pursue their own careers and lives with similar conviction, compassion, and connection.”

Bennett and her team first explored ways to treat LCA, which causes vision loss in humans and other animals, by applying gene therapy to puppies born with blindness due to spontaneous mutations in the same gene that causes the human form of the disease. By introducing healthy copies of the gene associated with LCA, she and her team were able to restore the dogs’ sight. This early success with canines paved the way for clinical trials involving children. The results have been life-changing: Patients with partial or total blindness have regained vision.

As the first gene therapy to receive FDA (and then worldwide) approval, Bennett’s work has opened scientific doors that may lead to future cures for a variety of conditions. For her transformative contributions to medical science, she has been the recipient of numerous honors, including the Sanford Lorraine Cross Award (with Dr. Katherine High), the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award (with her husband, Dr. Maguire), and the Lighthouse Guild’s Bressler Prize in Vision Science.

Born into a Yale family — her father, William R. Bennett Jr., was the C. Baldwin Sawyer Professor of Engineering and Applied Science and Physics — Jean Bennett was steeped in the life of the university long before she joined one of the earliest undergraduate classes to include women. While still in junior high school, she worked in a lab in Kline Biology Tower, and the summer before entering Yale College, she joined a Yale Symphony Orchestra tour to Vienna. A biology major, she honed her research skills as a student of renowned Yale cell biologist Joseph Gall.

After graduating from Yale, Bennett earned a Ph.D. in zoology and cell and developmental biology from the University of California-Berkeley, and her M.D. from Harvard. She then returned to New Haven as a postdoctoral researcher, living in Silliman College during her father’s tenure there as head of college in the 1980s. She completed her training at Johns Hopkins University.

Drs. Jean Bennett and Albert Maguire with their Swedish Briard dogs, Venus and Mercury.
Drs. Jean Bennett and Albert Maguire with their Swedish Briard dogs, Venus and Mercury. The dogs’ vision was restored through Bennett’s gene therapy, laying the groundwork for treatment of human blindness.

Last month, Bennett’s lab shifted gears to begin developing a COVID-19 vaccine, an effort that has galvanized and given new purpose to a team already experienced in changing lives for the better.

In her Class Day address, Bennett will offer insights from her days as a Yale student to her current work at the forefront of medical research, and share her vision for a future marked by acuity, creativity, and community.

Yale College Class Day originated in the 19th century, when the entire graduating class — fewer than 100 students — gathered in a circle on Old Campus to share memories of their time at Yale. Today, the ceremony includes speeches and reflections by members of the class; the awarding of top academic, artistic, and athletic prizes; and the celebration of longstanding traditions, including the Class Ivy, the clay churchwarden pipe, and the singing of “Bright College Years.” Class Day, which takes place the Sunday before university commencement, features a notable speaker chosen with undergraduates’ input.

Planning for the Class Day 2020 celebration is part of a larger university effort to recognize graduates’ accomplishments across all of Yale’s schools. Commencement programming in May 2020 will encompass both traditional elements and creative additions to the customary university celebrations, delivered online. Further details will be announced in the coming weeks.

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