One of the 'Greatest Cancer Geneticists of the Modern Era'

One of the ‘Greatest Cancer Geneticists of the Modern Era’

Remembering the life of eminent Creighton researcher, professor Henry Lynch, MD

By Blake Ursch

About three years ago, Henry Lynch, MD, was on dialysis. And things didn’t look good. His health had suffered in the years following the death of his wife, Jane. His heart was failing, and his fellow physicians were concerned about his well-being through what looked to be his final days.

So Robert “Bo” Dunlay, MD’81, dean of the School of Medicine, approached Lynch to talk about retiring and enjoying whatever time he had left.  

Lynch wasn’t having it. “I’ve got a lot of work left to do,” he told Dunlay. And he began to sketch out his projects for the next 10 years.

Recounting the story at Lynch’s June 10 funeral at St. John’s Church, Dunlay posed a question, one that was likely already on the minds of many gathered there to honor the life of the renowned researcher: “What fuels a guy like Henry Lynch?”

Lynch, founder and director of Creighton’s Hereditary Cancer Center and a pioneer in the field of cancer genetics, died June 2 at the age of 91. His death prompted family, friends, former patients and medical professionals from around the country to share stories of the man whose grit and dedication to his work led to our modern understanding of cancer.

“Henry Lynch occupies a distinguished place in the pantheon of the greatest cancer geneticists of the modern era,” said Kenneth Offit, MD, chief of the Clinical Genetics Service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, in the Washington Post. “He defined the hereditary basis of common human cancers during a period when these views were considered heretical, and lived to see the genetic basis of cancers become part of the practice of preventive medicine.”

Lynch didn’t follow the most traditional path into medicine. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on Jan. 4, 1928, he grew up in a poor area in New York City. In 1944, when he was just 16, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy under an older cousin’s name. During World War II, he served in Europe and as a gunner on a merchant marine ship in the Pacific.

After his discharge in 1946, Lynch, who stood 6-foot-5, became a professional boxer, competing in New York state and the San Francisco Bay Area under the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank.”

In the late 1940s, Lynch enrolled at the University of Oklahoma after taking a high school qualifying exam. Though he originally sought to become a clinical psychologist, Lynch shifted gears, eventually earning his medical degree at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in 1960 after completing all the coursework toward a PhD in human genetics in Austin. He came to Creighton in 1967.

It was in the 1960s that Lynch began to research whether certain cancers could be tied to genetics. Using what doctors today call “shoe-leather epidemiology,” Lynch met and interviewed various cancer patients and drew detailed family trees. By keeping meticulous records, he began to find and trace the inheritance patterns of certain cancers through multiple generations.

But the medical establishment wasn’t convinced. At that time, most experts believed cancer was primarily caused by environmental factors.

“Nobody believed me,” Lynch once said of these early years. “But I knew we had something here. I knew we could potentially save lives.”

Lynch’s son, Patrick Lynch, JD’75, MD’83, compares his father’s work with that of other trailblazers from history, like the Wright brothers. Today, the notion of genetic cancer is widespread, and researchers now estimate between 5% to 10% of cancers are inherited, according to the National Cancer Institute. But at the time, Lynch was pushing back against popular opinion.

“He was a pioneer in some stuff that’s widely become mainstream,” Patrick said. “Somebody had to be persistent.”

In 1984, Lynch founded the Hereditary Cancer Center at Creighton, which aims at prevention through identifying hereditary cancer syndromes. (The University has named Robin Farias-Eisner, MD, PhD, as Lynch’s successor.) In his honor, the Jane and Henry Lynch Endowed Research Fund was established in 2016 to provide financial support for research conducted at the cancer center.

Also in 1984, the term “Lynch syndrome” was coined to refer to hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer. Lynch’s work in identifying the condition has helped doctors more accurately predict a patient’s risk for the disease, allowing treatment to start earlier.

In addition to his work with the cancer center, Lynch served as chairman of Creighton’s Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health. In 2004, he was named the inaugural holder of the Charles F. and Mary C. Heider Endowed Chair in Cancer Research.

Creighton was home for Lynch, his son said. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw his work in medicine as a way to serve God, said the Rev. Jim Clifton, SJ, who delivered the homily at Lynch’s funeral Mass.

Lynch “saw no conflict between science and faith,” Fr. Clifton said. Throughout his career, even through criticism and condemnation, “he never took for granted the goodness of his patients and their trust in him.”

Lynch was preceded in death by his wife, Jane, a psychiatric nurse who accompanied him on his travels and helped him collect data. He is survived by three children, son Patrick and his wife, Mary Tribulato Lynch, MD’79; daughter Kathy Pinder and her husband, Pat; daughter Ann Kelly and her husband, Jim; 10 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.