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David "Sonny" Lacks and his daughter, Jeri Lacks Whye,
discuss Henrietta Lacks. Below, Lacks answers
a question from Joseph F. Carr '83.

​Son, Granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks Discuss Freshman Common Reading Book

Until Rebecca Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, few knew anything about the woman whose cancer cells, harvested without her knowledge before her death in 1951, became the immortal “HeLa” cell line essential to medical research for seven decades.

Even her son, David “Sonny” Lacks, Jr., and her granddaughter, Jeri Lacks Whye, learned about Henrietta Lacks by reading Skloot’s book — about her contributions to medicine and her early years and interests as well.

Lacks and Whye visited Providence College on April 4 for a conversation with students, staff, and faculty about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown Publishers, 2010), the Freshman Common Reading Program selection this academic year. Also attending the event, which was presented by the Office of Academic Affairs, were students and faculty from Rhode Island College, where the book also was a common reading selection.  

College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 described the book as “brilliant” and “fascinating,” allowing readers to probe issues of science, ethics, and race.

The master of ceremonies, Charles J. Haberle, assistant vice president for academic affairs, noted some of the ways the College community had explored the book: through orientation group discussions at the start of the fall semester, in biology lab tours that included viewing HeLa cells, and in a freshman essay contest.

For years, no one knew that the person whose cell line had made vaccines and life-saving drugs possible was a poor black wife and mother of five from Baltimore.

On a stage in Slavin Center ’64 Hall, Lacks and Whye answered questions posed by Joseph F. Carr ’83, assistant vice president for marketing and communications. Lacks revealed that he had few memories of his mother.

“I was 4 years old when my mother passed away,” he explained.

Whye said no one spoke about her grandmother when she was growing up. It was only through Skloot’s book that Henrietta’s grandchildren learned about her contributions to science — and that she had hazel eyes like Sonny, tiny feet, loved to dance, and favored red nail polish.

After the book, “We thought of her as a rock star,” Whye said. “She is so amazing. It was mind-blowing to us.”

The hardest part was reading “how Henrietta suffered when she was in the hospital,” dying of a fast-growing cervical cancer at age 31, Whye said.

Research was “for the greater good”

Though many family members were angry when they first learned about Lacks’ cell line, Sonny Lacks and Whye indicated they have come to terms with it.

Whye said some younger family members remain “a little unsettled” that drug companies profited commercially from the cell line.

She said she has read more books on the subject of medicine and ethics than she ever thought possible, including Medical Apartheid and Experimental Man. Three of Henrietta Lacks’ granddaughters are studying science in high school, college, and graduate school.

Lacks said he does not blame Johns Hopkins Hospital or the doctors at the time because their research was “for the greater good.” He described the wonder of  watching his mother’s cells divide and take over other cells under microscopes at Johns Hopkins.

Asked what Henrietta would have said if she had been asked to donate her cells, Sonny Lacks said, “She’d say that it was something that was good for science. I guess she would say, ‘Go do what you’re going to do.’ She was a giving person.” 

Students react to speakers

Since the book’s publication, Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to medicine have been recognized. Each year, Johns Hopkins hosts a Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series and awards a Henrietta Lacks scholarship to a high school student who wants to study biology. A Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School is being constructed near Vancouver, Wash., and Oprah Winfrey and Alan Boll are making a movie about Lacks’ story.  

Students, faculty, and staff had a chance to question Lacks and Whye after the session, and both signed copies of Skloot’s book.

“It was interesting to see the perspective of the family members and the experiences they went through,” said Kara Komprathoum ’16 (Winchendon, Mass.).

Alyssa Kinney ’16 (Berlin, N.H.), whose essay about the book won second prize in the student essay contest last fall, said she was interested in whether Lacks and Whye would address her topic, “The Education Gap.” 

“When (Whye) mentioned her daughter was in an AP science class, that really got me excited,” said Kinney.

The visit occurred on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Footprints Gospel Choir  entertained at the start of the event, singing several selections, including “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” an anthem of the civil rights movement.

 

— Vicki-Ann Downing  

 
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