Father of Cancer Genetics, Dr Henry Lynch, Has Died Aged 91

Megan Brooks

June 06, 2019

Henry T. Lynch, MD, PhD, world-renowned pioneer in the study of hereditary cancers, who discovered the most common form of hereditary colorectal cancer, known as Lynch syndrome, died on June 2 at the age of 91.

Dr Henry Lynch

"Dr Lynch has captained the hereditary cancer ship for 50 years, and it is sad to see his journey end," Robert Dunlay, MD, dean of the School of Medicine at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, said in a university statement.

Lynch was a professor at Creighton University and was founder and director of the Hereditary Cancer Center at Creighton, which opened in 1984.

In the 1960s, Lynch was one of the first to postulate that cancer could be hereditary after noting that some cancer patients had relatives and ancestors who had the same type of cancer. Lynch studied the cancer histories of more than 3000 families in his more than 50-year career, tracking genetic ties to cancer.

He first identified a strain of hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer in the 1960s. It wasn't until 1984 that the term Lynch syndrome was coined. Although not an actual cancer, Lynch syndrome strongly predisposes people who have this inherited defect to develop colorectal cancer, as well as several other types of cancer.

In the 1960s, cancer as a hereditary disease was a hard sell. The prevailing view among scientists at the time was that cancer was not a hereditary disease.

"Nobody believed me," Lynch once said, according to a university news release. "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."

Lynch was also the first to discover the hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome, which led to the identification of BRCA mutations for diagnosis of hereditary breast cancer.

In addition to his work with the Creighton's Hereditary 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. He lectured all over the world and was widely recognized for his groundbreaking work.

In May 2019, he was honored by OncLive as one of 15 Giants of Cancer Care for his lifetime of research in genetics and cancer prevention.

In 2017, he received the inaugural Luminary Award from the Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers. His lifetime of work into hereditary cancer also earned him a distinguished fellowship from the American College of Physicians.

Lynch published hundreds of scientific articles and several books.

Lynch was "an institution at Creighton," Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, PhD, Creighton's president, said in the release. "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."

Known as "Hammerin' Hank"

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on January 4, 1928, Lynch grew up in Depression-era New York. He used a falsified birth certificate to join the US Navy at the age of 16 and served as a gunner on a Marine ship in the Pacific during World War II.

After being discharged from the military in 1946, Lynch became a professional boxer, earning the nickname "Hammerin' Hank." He returned to school in the late 1940s, earning bachelor's, master's, and medical degrees and conducting doctoral work in human genetics.

Lynch received a bachelor's degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1951 and a master's degree in clinical psychology from the University of Denver in 1952. He received his doctorate in human genetics at the University of Texas, Austin, and attended medical school at the University of Texas, Galveston, in 1960. Lynch completed his residency in internal medicine at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in Omaha.

Lynch was an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston before joining the Creighton University School of Medicine faculty in 1967.

Lynch was preceded in death by his wife, Jane, a psychiatric nurse, who assisted him in his research, which included traveling around the world to collect data and conduct research. He is survived by their three children and several grandchildren.

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