The Unorthodox Career of the Father of Hereditary Cancery, Dr. Henry Lynch

Still actively researching at age 87, Dr. Henry Lynch, president of the Heredity Cancer Center at Creighton University’s School of Medicine in Omaha, Neb., has led an unorthodox career. After dropping out of school at 15, lying about his age to join the Navy at 16, and at one time enjoying a professional boxing career, Dr. Lynch became a pioneer in the study of cancer and genetics.

In 1966, Lynch bucked conventional wisdom when he published a seminal paper on what he then called the “Cancer Family Syndrome.” The paper described two large Midwestern families showing the same dismaying rates of colon cancer, as well as several other cancers. Nevertheless, when Lynch used this finding and additional data to apply for a National Institutes of Health grant four years later, the reviewing committee denied the application, continuing to outright reject the idea that cancer could be hereditary.

But Lynch persisted. For the next two decades, his unwavering commitment, an ability to make the most out of limited funding and his painstaking record keeping led to the creation of a hereditary cancer registry entirely unique in its depth and breadth. He tracked individuals and families through multiple generations, collecting family histories, medical and pathology records and DNA samples when available.

“Giving up never crossed my mind,” he admits. “I knew I was right. My previous genetic, medical and oncology training left me with no doubt in my mind that I was right.”

Over the next twenty years, Lynch continued to compile data and statistics that demonstrated patterns of cancer syndromes through multiple generations of families. Through this work, he became the first to define the necessary criteria for a genetic cancer: early age of onset of the disease, specific pattern of multiple primary cancers and Mendelian patterns of inheritance in hundreds of extended families worldwide.

Dr. Lynch will be honored at The Dr. Henry T. Lynch Symposium on September 17-18 on campus in Omaha. 

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Creighton University