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Cancer researcher’s work saved many lives, Lynch Syndrome named for him

Henry LynchThe man who changed the way the world looked at cancer, Dr. Henry T. Lynch, known to many as “the father of hereditary cancer detection and prevention" died Sunday. He was 91. A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Monday, June 10 in St. John’s Church.

Lynch was the founder and director of the Hereditary Cancer Center at Creighton University, which opened in 1984, and dedicated his life to cancer research, especially hereditary cancers. Lynch studied the cancer histories of more than 3,000 families in his more than 50-year career tracking the genetic linkages in certain forms of cancer.

“Dr. Lynch has captained the hereditary cancer ship for 50 years, and it is sad to see his journey end,” said Robert Dunlay, MD’81, dean of the School of Medicine. “However, the Henry Lynch Cancer Centers at CHI Health Immanuel Medical Center and Creighton University-Bergan Mercy Medical Center will serve as a platform that will ensure Henry’s legacy of excellence in service to others continues here at Creighton.”

Lynch began studying potential hereditary causes of nonpolyposis colon cancer in the 1960s, when medical orthodoxy said that cancer was not a hereditary disease. Lynch syndrome was first identified by the budding geneticist in the early 1960s. But, Lynch said, he had a hard fight on his hands to convince anyone of his findings.

“Nobody believed me,” he said. “At that time, cancer was all thought to be caused by environment. Exposure to chemicals. But I knew we had something here. I knew we could potentially save lives.”

In 1984, the term “Lynch syndrome” was coined to recognize his contributions in identifying the strain of hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer. His identification of the Lynch syndrome, provided a more accurate prediction of a patient’s risk for the disease, allowing for earlier detection and treatment.

In addition, Lynch was the first in the world to discover the hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome, a finding that affects countless hereditary breast-ovarian cancer-prone families. This discovery led to the identification of BRCA mutations for diagnosis of hereditary breast cancer.

Lynch came to Creighton in 1967 and, in addition to his work with the Hereditary Cancer Center, 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. He lectured nationally and internationally, and was widely recognized for his groundbreaking work.

In May, he was honored by OncLive, a digital platform of resources for practicing oncologists with a suite of internationally recognized publications, as one of 15 “Giants of Cancer Care” for his lifetime of research in genetics and cancer prevention. In 2017, he was presented the inaugural Luminary Award from the Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers. His lifetime of teaching and research into hereditary cancer also earned him a distinguished “fellowship” designation from the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the Walter J. O’Donohue Award from the ACP’s state chapter.

In 2015, the Dr. Henry T. Lynch Symposium was held in Omaha, as both a tribute to the Creighton researcher and as an international gathering of scientists in hereditary cancer.

Lynch was a Creighton institution and loved his work. One story from the 1980s tells of Lynch, who had injured his back, being wheeled into class on a gurney to deliver a lecture. His path to scientist was also something of legend. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Lynch grew up in Depression-era New York and used an older cousin’s identification to join the U.S. Navy at 16. He served as a gunner on a Marine ship in the Pacific during World War II.

After being discharged from the military in 1946, Lynch stepped into the ring as a professional boxer – where he gained the nickname “Hammerin’ Hank.” He would return to school in the late 1940s, earning bachelor’s, master’s and medical degrees and conducting doctoral work in human genetics.

Dr. Lynch was preceded in death by his wife, Jane, a psychiatric nurse, who assisted him in his research – which included travels across the nation and around the world, conducting studies and collecting data.

He is survived by their three children, Patrick Lynch, JD’75, MD’83, and his wife, Mary Tribulato Lynch, MD’79, of Houston, Kathy Pinder and her husband, Pat, of Corona, California, and Ann Kelly and her husband, Jim, of Redondo Beach, California, and several grandchildren.

At 6-foot-5 Lynch was a towering figure at Creighton – in more ways than one.

“Dr. Lynch was a pioneer in the field of hereditary cancer, and was internationally recognized for his groundbreaking work,” said Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD. “He was an institution at Creighton, founding and directing our Hereditary Cancer Center. He was humble in spirit, deeply passionate in his work, and gracious to all. With his passing, we join a wide community of colleagues, researchers, patients, students, and health professionals who not only mourn his loss, but are eternally grateful for his dedication, zest for life, and commitment to serving humanity.”

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