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A life of service: Prof Lynette Denny’s selfless dedication to improving healthcare for SA women

A life of service: Prof Lynette Denny’s selfless dedication to improving healthcare for SA women
Professor Lynette Denny at her home in Green Point, Cape Town. (Photo: Nasief Manie / Spotlight)

Renowned researcher Prof Lynette Denny died on Sunday, 9 June, after a long illness. Her colleagues in the medical field remember her as a compassionate and brilliant leader who dedicated her life to fighting cervical cancer and improving access to healthcare for women, particularly those living in low-income communities.

Prof Lynette Denny, renowned researcher and former head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), was a remarkable individual who made immense contributions to the rights of women when it came to health.

She spent a lifetime striving to improve access to care for marginalised communities through intensive research, selfless service and the training of generations of specialists.

Denny died on Sunday, 9 June at the age of 66. 

Her colleagues in the medical field have described her as a steadfast and kind leader.

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Professor Lynette Denny receives the Order of Boabab in silver from President Cyril Ramaphosa on 18 November 2021 in Pretoria for her contribution to the field of obstetrics. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deean Vivier)

During her career, which spanned almost four decades at UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital, she spearheaded significant advances in the fight against cervical cancer.

Prof Mushi Matjila, the current head of UCT’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, said that Denny had gifted both the university and the people of South Africa “unmeasurable dedication and love”, adding that she had been much loved in return.

“Lyn was a respected, grounded and well-rounded specialist who was often consulted as a global expert in the field of women’s health and was a fearless and vocal advocate for women – particularly the poor and marginalised,” said Matjila.

“She has always been an eloquent and robust advocate against all forms of injustice – in particular, racial injustice and discrimination.”

In 1995, Denny began working with Columbia University in New York to find pap smear alternatives for women in low-income communities. She helped found the Khayelitsha Cervical Cancer Screening Project in Site B of Khayelitsha, Cape Town. 

At the start, the project operated out of a single mobile caravan adapted for the examination and treatment of women. Over the next 30 years, it grew into an established health centre made up of five containers and a prefabricated building. 

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Prof Lynette Denny, director of the Khayelitsha Cervical Cancer Screening Project, shows Western Cape Health MEC Dr Nomafrench Mbombo around the project’s colposcopy room. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Speaking to Daily Maverick in a 2022 interview, Denny said she was motivated to tackle cervical cancer research by her early work at Groote Schuur Hospital when she would see up to 10 women a week – mostly black women – with advanced cancer of the cervix.

“Many of them had tried to access healthcare up to eight times before somebody examined them properly, made a diagnosis and sent them for care,” she said. 

“The injustice around it, and the suffering, really infuriated me, particularly because it was so clear that we could… prevent it.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Saving women — the powerful work of the Khayelitsha Cervical Cancer Screening Project

Under Denny’s leadership, the Khayelitsha Cervical Cancer Screening Project has not only screened more than 60,000 women for cervical cancer in a variety of high-level projects and studies, but has also produced valuable research on how to make cervical cancer prevention more effective and less costly.

“Prof Denny was a remarkable woman, colleague, mentor and friend, but above all, a humanitarian with uncompromising values,” said Associate Professor Lionel Green-Thompson, Dean of UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, in a statement on Monday.

“Her legacy will forever be engraved in the rich tapestry of the faculty, University of Cape Town and beyond our borders.”

Dr Rakiya Saidu worked alongside Denny as the lead clinician and co-investigator at the Khayelitsha Cervical Cancer Screening Project. She emphasised that Denny was not only her boss but also a mentor, friend and confidante.
“Her absence leaves a significant void in my heart… Lyn, you are an amazing example of life and words cannot express how much I will miss you. I will miss you asking about the children and how they are doing in school. I will miss you telling me to take time to go and see my mum,” she said.
“Thank you for everything. Thank you for being the super advocate for vulnerable women. Thank you for being my champion, before, now and forever. I will miss you, deeply, but I have so many cherished memories of you to comfort me.”

A career with compassion

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‘When you invest in preventing cervical cancer, you reduce premature deaths among women’ — Professor Lynette Denny, the late director of the Khayelitsha Cervical Cancer Screening Project. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Denny was head of the UCT Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology from 2013 to 2022 and served as the director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Gynaecological Cancer Research Unit, which investigates all aspects of gynaecological cancers.

She also spent time as the chairperson of Rape Crisis and helped to set up the Thuthuzela care centres for victims of sexual abuse. Her expert input had an impact on legislation around gender-based violence.

“Prof Denny’s leadership style and character were typified by integrity, kindness, compassion, exceptional vision and a conviction of servitude for vulnerable members of our society,” said Matjila. 

“Many can attest to her utmost kindness, wisdom, love and guidance in her portfolio – and she believed in ‘growing our own timber’ as an institution, country and continent.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: World expert on cervical cancer Professor Lynette Denny reflects on an extraordinary life of service

During her career, Denny received several accolades, including the first Shoprite/Checkers/SABC2 South African Women of the Year award in the category of Science and Technology.

In 2004, she received the Pioneer for Peace and Human Dignity award in recognition of her efforts to assist abused women and children in communities around Cape Town, and in 2012 she received the South African Medical Association Award for Extraordinary Service to Medicine.

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Professor Lynette Denny with her sister Robyn Denny. (Photo: Jairus Mmutle / GCIS)

“We must celebrate Prof Denny’s lifetime achievements and enormous legacy in the context of her tireless attempts to improve access to quality healthcare… particularly given the burden of gender inequality experienced on the country and continent,” said Matjila.

Denny’s contributions to cancer research have been recognised both locally and internationally.

She was a recipient of both the International Agency Research in Cancer Medal of Honour and the International Gynaecological Cancer Society Global Humanitarian Award. 

In 2021, the Presidency honoured her with the Order of the Baobab in silver for her contribution to the field of obstetrics.

“Lyn personified passion with compassion, fierce fairness, humble brilliance and profound humanity. Her memory is an awesome blessing. Condolences to her family and all who knew and loved her,” said Linda-Gail Bekker, professor of medicine and CEO of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at UCT.

Dr Francoise Louis, an HIV expert who worked in South Africa under Doctors Without Borders, made the following statement on Denny’s passing: “From all the women worldwide, an eternal grateful thank you with respect, humility and sincere admiration. May your soul be at peace.” DM

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