ASCO Remembers Cancer Genetics Pioneer Dr. Henry T. Lynch

Jun 04, 2019

ASCO and the oncology community are saddened by the passing of Henry T. Lynch, MD, a renowned researcher and true pioneer in the study of hereditary cancers. Dr. Lynch passed away on June 2, 2019, at the age of 91.

Dr. Lynch was a professor at Creighton University School of Medicine, and the founder and director of the Hereditary Cancer Center at Creighton, established in 1984. He served as chair of the institution’s Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, and was named the inaugural holder of the Charles F. and Mary C. Heider Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at Creighton.

In the 1960s, Dr. Lynch was one of the first cancer researchers to probe possible genetic causes of and familial susceptibility to certain cancers, at a time when the prevailing wisdom pointed to environmental factors as the primary driver; his early grant applications in this area were frequently rejected. Undeterred, Dr. Lynch created a hereditary cancer registry at Creighton (which today includes the cancer history of more than 3,000 families), and with colleagues conducted studies which definitively identified several genetic cancer syndromes that persist through multiple generations of families. Furthermore, Dr. Lynch and his collaborators recognized connections, via these genetic syndromes, among different types of cancer that were previously thought to be unrelated.

He will be remembered for these incredible discoveries, which laid the foundation for our modern era of precision medicine, and particularly for the identification of the strain of hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer which bears his name: Lynch syndrome, coined in 1984. Dr. Lynch is also credited with the discovery of hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome, which led to the identification of BRCA mutations. His work in these areas has had a profound effect on cancer screening, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1928, Dr. Lynch grew up in New York City. At 16, he used a false ID to hide his age and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving as a gunner in the Pacific theater during World War II. After being discharged from the Navy, he made a career as a professional boxer under the name “Hammerin’ Hank.”

After obtaining his high-school equivalency, and completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma and his master’s degree in clinical psychology at the University of Denver, his path turned toward the field in which he would make his thrilling and unprecedented discoveries. He studied for a PhD in human genetics at the University of Texas at Austin and received his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He completed his internship at St. Mary’s Hospital in Evansville, Indiana, and his residency in internal medicine at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. His first faculty appointment was at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; in 1967, he accepted a position at Creighton, where he would spend the rest of his storied career.

An ASCO member, Dr. Lynch served on the ASCO Annual Meeting Education Committee from 2000-2003, and in 2011 was presented with the Keynote Lecture Award at the ASCO-cosponsored Gastrointestinal Cancers Symposium.

He was recognized with numerous awards and honors, most recently being selected as an OncLive Giant of Cancer Care in May 2019. In 2017, he was presented with the inaugural Luminary Award from the Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers. He received a Medal of Honor for Clinical Research from the American Cancer Society in 1997 and the AACR-Joseph H. Burchenal Memorial Award for Outstanding Achievement in Clinical Cancer Research in 2010, among many others, and symposia and cancer centers have been named in his honor.

Dr. Lynch was preceded in death by his wife, Jane, a psychiatric nurse, and is survived by their three children and several grandchildren.

Read Dr. Lynch's obituary in the Washington Post.

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