Members of the Lacks family visited the College as part of the Williams Reads program last Wednesday and Thursday.
The book for this year’s Williams Reads program was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a non-fiction piece about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, the immortal line of cells that came from her cervical cancer cells. David Lacks Jr. and Shirley Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’s grandson and daughter-in-law, respectively, visited the College and gave a presentation at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, followed by a moderated discussion led by Olivia Polk ’16. They also visited several classes to participate in discussion on a smaller scale.
“A lot of faculty were teaching that book in classes,” said Dean of the College Sarah Bolton, “and so one of the really exciting things that I think we saw on Wednesday for the event with the family was that there were classes coming in from all over the College, classes from Division I, Division II and Division III, and the Lacks family generously met with groups of students in their classes both before and after that conversation in the ’62 center. So I think that was really rich as well, the way that it connected with a lot of people’s academic experiences and their entry experiences.”
The book follows Skloot as she investigates both the story of Henrietta Lacks’s immortal cells, commonly known as HeLa cells, and the story of the Lacks family. Much of the book centers on Skloot’s relationship with Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’s daughter. “Deborah and Rebecca set out on a journey,” Shirley Lacks said. “Deborah wanted to know about her mom,” but her father and oldest brother refused to talk about her mom, even to this day.
The Lacks’s presentation focused on Henrietta Lacks’s legacy and how she has been honored since the public discovered that she was the woman behind immortal line of HeLa cells.
“The book just opened the world up to Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell,” David Lacks Jr. said. The Lacks family showed pictures of plaques in her honor, including a roadside historical plaque and a plaque on the home in Turners Station, Baltimore, where Henrietta Lacks lived before her death. They also highlighted the donated headstones for Henrietta Lacks’s and Elsie Lacks’s unmarked graves. Elsie Lacks was Henrietta Lacks’s oldest daughter.
The presentation also stressed other honors Henrietta Lacks received posthumously, including an honorary degree from Morgan State University for public service and induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame in March 2014. The Lacks family also had the opportunity to meet President Obama earlier this year.
At the end of the presentation, David Lacks Jr. discussed Henrietta Lacks’s genome and the journey that the family has gone on as a result. Her genome was published without the family’s consent and then removed from public access while a National Institutes of Health (NIH) board was established to review requests for access to the genomic data. David Lacks Jr. serves on this board. “Now we have a voice in what goes on,” David Lacks Jr. said.
Polk began the moderated discussion by pointing out that the book is really “two stories simultaneously”: a discussion of what happened to Henrietta Lacks and also an account of the Lawwcks family’s extremely personal journey upon discovering that Henrietta’s cells were still alive.
This deception and subsequent discovery would become a theme throughout the rest of the discussion. David Lacks Jr., answering a question about what it is like to be on the NIH board that grants access to Henrietta Lacks’s genomic data, repeated how nice it is to have a voice after previously being denied any knowledge about his grandmother’s cells. He emphasized that the board tries to work alongside researchers rather than simply blocking access.
David Lacks Jr. and Shirley Lacks discussed how Henrietta Lacks’s story has shaped their current thoughts on science, as well as the hope they have for scientists’ future attitudes towards cells.
“Now I look at cells and think, ‘What’s the story behind this cell?’” David Lacks Jr. said.
“This was a part of a human being at one point.” Shirley Lacks said. “When it comes to tissue, whatever you’re using, whether it’s tissue or blood, remember that that came from a person.”
One theme of the book that was brought up in discussion as well was whether it was fair that the family did not profit at all from HeLa cells, while others did. According to the family, that is not as much of an issue now because the younger Lacks generation is educated, independent and has access to medical care. Shirley Lacks said that she passes on a message of hope and perseverance to her grandchildren instead of one of resentment: “You have to continue to move forward. So many people have done so much to get you to where you are.”
The Lacks family also discussed race, another major theme in the book. Black women now “look at themselves and say, ‘I’m worth something’,” Shirley Lacks said. They can read the book and see how much of a difference Henrietta Lacks made even though “she never knew she made that difference,” according to Shirley Lacks.
Shirley Lacks believes this sends the message that although an individual may not be aware of his or her impact, whether in life or in death, he or she is “worth something.”
“This book transcends race,” David Lacks Jr. said. “Black women could look at it and be empowered. Women could say a woman did it. It can empower all people.”
Throughout the presentation and discussion, the Lacks family kept returning to Henrietta Lacks’s legacy. “For the family, she was a giving person,” David Lacks Jr. said. “She took care of her family and she took care of the world.”