They first met in the early 90s through the now disbanded Girls’ Secondary Schools’ Social Club, little knowing they had just started a decades-long friendship.
At the time, Lyn Thomas also couldn’t have known that one day her new friend, Dr Marie Knispel, would bequeath her an opportunity to support a dramatic advance in cancer diagnosis. The choice Lyn made became almost inevitable as her friendship with Marie unfolded.
Coming from very different backgrounds - Lyn was a bookkeeper and admin clerk, Marie a general practitioner - the pair connected through their work with the social club, but their true bond formed as they began to travel together.
“A club member had organised a tour to Canada,” remembers Lyn. “I didn’t even know about it and suddenly Marie was asking me if I planned on going.”
Lyn was reluctant, but Marie persisted. “She rang me and persuaded me to join her,” says Lyn. The trip to Canada began an annual tradition that would continue for almost 25 years, as the pair explored Australia and the world, covering a lot of ground.
Marie particularly, was a tireless traveller. Lyn remembers that not long after a hip operation, she stoically navigated the steep terrain of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides with a walking stick.
The more Lyn came to know her friend, the more she admired her. Marie decided to become a doctor when she was just 13, in an era when women weren’t encouraged to join that and most other professions. She graduated from the University in 1951 as part of a cohort of 228, where she was one of just 20 women. Her success was a demonstration of her diligence and determination.
That same determination shone through later in life, when Marie was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer was successfully removed, but in 2018 it returned with a vengeance. Dr Marie Knispel, who had spent her life caring for the health of others, passed away just three months later.
Reeling from the sudden loss of her close friend, Lyn was surprised to learn that Marie had left her $100,000 in her will. “I had no idea I was getting the money” she says.
The next decision Lyn made was an easy one. She had lost her father to bowel cancer and now breast cancer had taken her closest friend. “I thought I’d put the money towards research into what Marie died from,” she says.
The ProCan team is working on a world-first idea that is simple, but powerful. It’s based on the fact that different cancers can have the same protein signature, and if they do, the same treatment might work on them both. The idea might be simple, but the task is not.
It involves analysing the protein signatures of thousands of cancer samples from around the world where the treatment outcomes are already known – successful and unsuccessful. This information will become a massive database so people having their cancers diagnosed can be quickly matched to the most appropriate treatment or steered away from treatments already shown not to work. The benefits of bringing all this information together for quick and easy access could be profound.
When asked what Marie would think of the research being conducted in her memory, Thomas says simply, “I think she’d be pleased.”
Unknown to Lyn at the time of her ProCan gift, Marie had arranged her own separate bequest to the University of Sydney, in support of health and medical research. A regular donor of the Sydney Medical School during her lifetime, Marie’s extraordinary legacy will live on through these combined gifts.