Family of Henrietta Lacks speaks on mother's contribution to science

    David “Sonny” Lacks Jr. spoke in Harris Hall on Thursday about the family behind the story of this year’s One Book One Northwestern, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

    Henrietta, David’s late mother, unknowingly provided physicians with tumor cells for medical research which were cultured into the first immortal human cell line. The cells were later used to help develop vaccines for polio and HPV. Henrietta fell victim to cancer in 1951, but her contribution to medicine remains one of the most important of the 20th century.

    Her story was written by journalist Rebecca Skloot, and Thursday’s OBON event aimed to discuss her book – and the family behind it.

    Answering questions from moderator Evonda Thomas, director of the Evanston Health Department, David said while he and most of his siblings were young when their mother died, they worked closely with Skloot to do research for the book.

    Communicating with the family extensively, Skloot focused on both the family’s personal history and Henrietta’s cells’ progress through research labs, David said.

    “I wouldn’t have written anything differently,” he said. “(Skloot) did her research, and she wrote it  in a way where everybody can relate to it. Getting the story out there…made us feel warm.”

    While the book pleased the family, however, that’s not to say it didn’t disapprove of Henrietta’s treatment. David’s daughter, Jeri Lacks Whye, said the family did have resentment and anger towards the medical community regarding Henrietta. Physicians treating her in 1951 took a piece of a tumor from her cervix for testing – without her knowledge.

    Still, Whye said the pride in knowing “I’m part of a great legacy, a great history…washed away that disappointment.”

    EvanstonTownshipHigh School biology teacher Eric Brown accompanied his students to the event, as his class is reading Skloot’s book to foster interest in medicine. Brown said the book not only provides explanations of various cellular processes, but also a humanized portrayal of a family dealing with a provocative ethical issue in science. 


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