A steadfast, kind, selfless and fearless leader, and a champion for women’s health in the country and on the continent is how family, friends and colleagues described renowned cervical cancer researcher and the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) very own Professor Lynette Denny.
Professor Denny is the former head of UCT’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the director of the university’s Gynaecological Cancer Research Centre (GCRC). During her illustrious career, which spans almost four decades as part of the fabric of UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital (a UCT teaching hospital), she has made giant strides in the fight against cervical cancer. Her unwavering spirit has led to ground-breaking research that has improved and saved the lives of thousands of women.
In recognition of her work, Denny, affectionately known as Lyn, has also received a list of impressive awards, including the Order of the Baobab (Silver) from President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2021. The National Order recognises her work as a leading researcher in cervical cancer and its association with the human papilloma virus (HPV). On the back of Women’s Day on Wednesday, 10 August, UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) hosted a special thanksgiving event to honour and celebrate Denny and her decades of service to the women of low- and middle-income countries around the world.
A hero among us
The dean of the FHS, Associate Professor Lionel Green-Thompson, said the event coincided with the faculty’s 110th anniversary (celebrated in June). And as the faculty celebrates this milestone of engaging in research, teaching and learning, and service to the people of the Western Cape, Associate Professor Green-Thompson said it was fitting to recognise the contribution of a “hero amongst us”. He said the anniversary also presents an opportune moment to value and highlight the stories of different individuals, so that it begins to inform the promise that the faculty continues to make to an unimagined future.
“The story of Lyn [Denny] is the story of how women stand [alongside] other women, often in order to build a changed society for us.”
“We are here now in the spirit of gratitude [and] being truly grateful for the stories we have among us and the stories we still have to tell. The story of Lyn [Denny] is the story of how women stand [alongside] other women, often in order to build a changed society for us,” Green-Thompson said. “I suspect that as you speak [up for] women’s rights and the rights of women on the margins, you speak with love, and I wanted to share with the faculty my own deep gratitude to Lyn.”
During the event, Denny’s friends, colleagues and loved ones took to the podium to share a few reflections and personal anecdotes. Here’s what they had to say (in order of their appearance):
Professor Mushi Matjila – head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology
“It’s appropriate for the faculty to celebrate Professor Lyn Denny – the icon; the icon who has led the department with integrity, kindness, compassion and exceptional vision. Her leadership can only be described as that of servitude.
“Lyn is a respected, grounded and an often-consulted global expert in the field of women’s health, and she’s a fearless and vocal advocate for women, particularly women from poor and marginalised backgrounds. She’s always been an eloquent and robust advocate against all forms of injustice, in particular racial injustice and discrimination. And it’s appropriate that we celebrate Prof Denny’s achievements in the context of Women’s Month.”
Professor Landon Myer – former head of the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine
“Reflecting on what to say this evening, it struck me that Lyn’s contributions are numerous, and what binds them together for me is the emphasis which pervades her contributions. Paradoxically, two things that don’t go together in academic medicine: rigor and caring, and what’s unique to me is the way that Lyn’s work combines rigor and caring.
“I know Lyn as someone of exceedingly high standards, as a teacher, scientist and a colleague; someone who expects excellence from herself and all those around her. I know Lyn as a person of tremendous personal compassion and humanity. We have become stronger [as a result of] your bravery and speaking truth and speaking honestly.”
Professor Louise Kuhn – international collaborator and professor in epidemiology, Columbia University
“Lyn has received many accolades over her remarkable career, one of which was the Order of the Baobab. The baobab is known as the tree of life. And in this mighty tree, we see the embodiment of this mighty woman. I’m so grateful that my life has been deeply touched by the smarter woman. I know as we continue to work together, we will all hear her roar.”
Dr Nondumiso Ngxola – gynae-oncologist based in the Eastern Cape
“Lyn, you are an excellent and compassionate clinician, an excellent surgeon, an excellent teacher, and an excellent researcher. And as a black woman in this country, a young professional, I’ve seen how intentional you’ve been about transformation in our field of practice.
“The sacrifices you’ve made saved [many] South African women’s lives and [improved] many [others].”
“You have sacrificed a lot for cervical cancer screening and prevention in this country. You could have decided to be an ordinary specialist, but you decided to be extraordinary. And there was a price to pay for that, and lots of sacrifices. The sacrifices you’ve made saved [many] South African women’s lives and [improved] many [others]. So, I want to say I thank you for your contribution to science and for [your] contribution to my life.”
Dr Nomonde Mbatani – colleague, mentee and friend
“I have had wonderful times with Lyn. She’s the friend who introduced me to different forms of religion and spirituality. Thank you for all the books and audios that you have shared with me. And thank you for the stellar conversations we have had over the years. I owe my emotional claim to you. As the Gynaecology Oncology Unit, we continue to uphold your teachings of ensuring the best care for our patients, and to respect all people who are around us. Thank you for your encouragement; thank you for your teachings.”
Robyn Ritchie – sister
“When I was born, my mother was very sore after her caesarean and other procedures. And it was my sister, at the age of 14, who would wake at 04:00 to give me my bottle. She would hold me with her long hair hanging down. So, she is a sister-mother to me. She also beautifully helped midwife my daughters into the world. To be loved and cared for by my sister is one of the most exquisite experiences.
“She delays her own healing in order to pour all her energy into healing those around her, particularly vulnerable women. I am so blessed to have you in my life. We have all been blessed to have you in our lives.”
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng – UCT vice-chancellor (VC)
“Your community-based research is inspiring, especially in how you involve people [in your work], and your focus on providing innovative, accessible, safe and effective methods for preventing cervical cancer. You bring your standard of excellence not only to your research and clinical work, but also to the environment where you and your team treat patients.
“On behalf of UCT, let me thank you for your expertise, for your compassion, for your humility, and for the life that you have dedicated to saving others. More than anything, thank you for choosing us as the home of your excellence.”
Dr Mamphela Ramphele – friend and former UCT VC
“I know Lyn, not as a professor, not as a doctor, not as all of the beautiful things she is, but as a human being, who continues to teach me and everybody who she encounters, what it means to be human. To be human is to be connected to others, and in time, dependent [on] others, and to be part of the web of life. That’s what makes Lyn so different from the rest of us.
“I don’t know what kind of person I would have been without having had you in my life.”
“I don’t know what kind of person I would have been without having had you in my life. You are amazing. And everyone who meets you is amazed by your amazing nature. We can never ever thank you enough for sharing yourself with us with such never-ending generosity. You are a person who models what it means to be human.”
Addressing the audience, Denny said she was filled with gratitude and honoured that Green-Thompson and the faculty chose to celebrate her work. And she described the celebration as a “privilege and beautiful moment”.
Denny said in the past 39 years, she has learned that research is a necessity, not a luxury, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where resources are limited. She reminded the audience that the essence of research is relationships, connections, clarity, insight, empathy, and ultimately, the passion to improve patients’ lives with high-quality evidence-based interventions.
“Never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you.”
And as researchers continue their work in the field, she said it’s important that they understand the consequences of inequity, poverty, neglect, loss of dignity, alienation, and marginalisation, and how all of these impact women’s lives. Therefore, she said, healthcare must be designed for the people, by the people.
In closing, Denny said she has devoted to living her life in line with the words shared by renowned global activist and author Arundhati Roy: “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”