Cellular celebrity Henrietta Lacks' family visits MU

Marianne Caesar
Features Writer

Students, faculty and community members were given an opportunity to listen to and meet with the grandchildren of cellular celebrity Henrietta Lacks, from whom cells have been used in mass production for scientific research, travelling for the “One Book, One College” program. Students from the Black Student Union and the NAACP introduced moderator Doctor Whisenton-Davidson and Lacks’ grandchildren David Lacks Junior and Kim Lacks.

Educating the audience with a PowerPoint presentation, Lacks’ grandchildren presented images of the family’s history, including the location from where their grandmother initially lived until moving from Virginia into Turners Station, carrying her third to fourth grade level of education while raising her family and experiencing cancer.

Bottom Row: Grandchildren Kim Lacks and David Lacks Junior. Top Row: Members of the One Book One Campus Committee, Jen Shettel and Dr. Marilyn Parrish.
Bottom Row: Grandchildren Kim Lacks and David Lacks Junior. Top Row: Members of the One Book One Campus Committee, Jen Shettel and Dr. Marilyn Parrish.

“This presentation has visual images of our turn discovering our grandmother Henrietta Lacks and her contribution to science and society,” stated Kim Lacks. Additional photos included their grandfather, for whom it was noted that he was a large baseball fan, known for watching baseball on three televisions at once.

There may have been three TV’s, but there were only five channels,” joked grandson David Lacks Jr. After moving to Baltimore, Lacks’ husband worked at Bethlehem Steel while they expanded their family. Another image which was shared was the image of Henrietta Lacks’ home being marked as a historical landmark, located on Pittsburgh Avenue.

“We would never know what type of woman she was and the type of things she liked. Without Aunt Deb, we wouldn’t have The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” stated granddaughter Kim. It was through the interests of Lacks’ child Deb that the ancestral involvement and awareness of Henrietta’s contribution was made known. Henrietta Lacks underwent chemo-therapy in the 1950’s, experiencing a difficult series of hardships in order to control her cervical cancer.

Her eldest son, Henry, was the eldest of five children and played witness and caretaker to his mother during her treatments, often breaking down when asked by his family members about his perspective on the matter. Since becoming more comfortable with his experiences, he has spoken at events such as the John Hopkins Symposium on cancer patients and their overall family experience.

His speeches have helped others affected by such heath maladies, and they have received aid through the Lacks Family Foundation, assisting with transportation management, financing, child care and other hardships for cancer patients and their families.

The book featured, titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” also faced some hardships in its multiple rejections from publishers due to the family’s involvement within. Daughter Deb Lacks was able to view the manuscript prior to her passing, which took place just before the book’s release, now available in over twenty-five languages.

It was in San Francisco that Deb Lacks was able to first see the living cells of her mother, granting her a closeness she was unable to attain in youth. Granddaughter Kim stated that “her cells were taking over in the petri dish as she would have in life. She was strong and didn’t take any mess.”

When questioned about any expansion on the book, Lacks’ grandchildren noted that in addition to school plays which have taken place, there is a movie in the works associated with Oprah Winfrey presently awaiting a release date with the changing of directors in place.

Art installations have been created in the likenesses of the Lacks family members, presently held in the London Museum, in the process of being available for viewing at Turner’s Station. At present, David Lacks Jr. and his aunt are on the board for the human genome project, involving genome sequencing of their family’s cells.

Dr. Whisenton-Davidson moderates the Q and A portion of the event.
Dr. Whisenton-Davidson moderates the Q and A portion of the event.

“We don’t want to stop science. Before we were the last to know [information] and now we are the first to know,” said Lacks Jr. Dr. Whisenton-Davidson moderated the question and answer portion of the event, adding that she has “worked on cells without knowing the contributor,” in her studies and that individuals “wouldn’t have the level of understanding without those cells,” given by Henrietta Lacks.

Another student spoke in gratitude for the use of the HeLa cells in helping to heal his ailment of Heliobactor pylori, a bacterium found rarely in human and more commonly in dogs to cause problems with digestion. Not only have the cells been used in producing vaccinations such as Salk’s vaccine for Poliomyelitis, but traces of the cells can be found within cough syrup and medicines.

In closing, Lacks’ granddaughter said that when she asks if others have heard of HeLa cells, and they say no, she just wants to shake them.

“We want everyone to know about it.” Lacks’ grandson stated that, “It is easier to tell what HeLa was not used for than for what it is.” In relation to the passion his family holds for spreading information on HeLa cells, he urged students to persistent in focusing on their passions. For further information on HeLa cells and assistance in dealing with Cancer, visit http://henriettalacksfoundation.org