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An epitaph, at last
SoVaNow.com / May 31, 2010A packed house gathered to honor a woman — long dead — whose complicated legacy left the scientists and preachers alike in the room groping for just the right words of praise.
The backdrop was a small African-American Baptist church in the community of Clover, a place of rapid-growing fame with the publication of a best-selling book, soon to be an HBO movie. Drawn to the event were some 200 people captivated by the strange tale of a poor tobacco sharecropper whose life, death and afterlife provoke questions about science, religion and the existence of miracles.
Yet for all the excitement Saturday at St. Matthew Baptist Church in Clover — where people near and far gathered to dedicate a headstone at the long-forgotten grave of Henrietta Lacks — a special source of joy was the family reunion that sprung up around the event.
“This is the good thing about all of this,” said a beaming David “Sonny” Lacks, one of three surviving children of Henrietta Lacks, whose story is told in the current best-seller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by science journalist Rebecca Skloot.
“It just makes me feel good that everybody is here, having a family reunion. I’m seeing family that I haven’t seen in 35 years. My brother Lawrence hasn’t seen most of the people here for 50 years.”
Sonny Lacks, the epicenter of emotion at Saturday’s celebration, joined brothers Lawrence and Zakariyya Rahman (formerly Joseph Lacks) and dozens of kinfolk — some of whom still reside in the Clover area — for a headstone dedication service for Mrs. Lacks, whose remains lie in a clearing nearby the old family home, a wooden shack now overrun by trees, brambles and vines.
Born in Roanoke in 1920, Mrs. Lacks was raised on a tobacco farm on Lacks Town Road in Clover before she moved to Baltimore in her twenties. There, in 1951, she died, the mother of five, after a brief, agonizing battle with cervical cancer. Her sons and many other descendants continue to live in the Baltimore area.
While treating her cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital 60 years ago, Mrs. Lacks’ doctors extracted tissue samples from the tumor in keeping with standard practice at the time. Following her death, researchers succeeded in replicating her human cells in the laboratory, a scientific breakthrough that changed the course of modern medicine.
Mrs. Lacks’ cells — dubbed HeLa after her first and last names — were put to immediate use in testing the just-invented polio vaccine. HeLa cells subsequently enabled numerous medical advances and continue to provide the underpinnings of a biomedical industry today worth billions of dollars.
The Hopkins researchers did not tell Mrs. Lacks or family members about the use of her cells, and for years the Lacks family had no knowledge of HeLa’s singular importance to science — nor the economic value. As related in Skloot’s book, the children of Henrietta Lacks became embittered as they learned more about their mother’s unacknowledged place in medical history at the same time they struggled to afford life’s necessities, including health care.
Aside from the three Lacks brothers, the Saturday service at Clover attracted several other figures who play major roles in the book, including Dr. Roland Pattillo, a professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. Pattillo, who first put Skloot in touch with the reticent Lacks family, purchased the Henrietta Lacks headstone along with his wife.
Also dedicated Saturday was a headstone for Lucile Elsie Lacks, one of Henrietta Lacks’ two daughters, both deceased. The quest to unravel the fate of Elsie Lacks, who was committed to the then-Hospital for The Negro Insane of Maryland as a young girl, animates the second half of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Elsie Lacks’ remains were relocated for burial next to her mother in Clover.
Deborah Lacks, the other daughter of Henrietta Lacks, is the primary figure in the book after the title character. Deborah Lacks died in 2009, a decade after first cooperating with Skloot on the family’s story but prior to the book’s publication. She is buried in the Baltimore area.
Absent from Saturday’s proceedings was Skloot herself; she text-messaged an acquaintance to say that she was traveling in the U.K. and therefore unable to attend.
Pattillo, who organized the first tribute to Henrietta Lacks 15 years ago at the Morehouse School in Atlanta, recalled that in 1951, the year of her death, he was a 17 year old student with a budding interest in biology. It was around that time “I first heard ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,’” said Pattillo, telling the audience with a smile that he didn’t know what the phrase meant, either.
“But I knew it had something to do with about how cancer came about and killed its victim.”
By her death, Henrietta Lacks provided the cell samples that have unlocked cures for cancer, polio and other diseases, and opened up research into promising fields such as stem cells, said Pattillo. Cancerous HeLa cells demonstrate an almost otherworldly capacity to reproduce, unlike the normal cells drawn from the human body. “All of these potential products of information, we’ve learned from HeLa cells,” Pattillo said.
“Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, the great heroines of all time, are paling in the light of Henrietta Lacks,” Pattillo said. “If you put together the all [her] cells, count all of the cells of Henrietta Lacks, it would stretch around the Earth three times.”
Another figure from the book who attended Saturday’s event was Courtney Speed, a local preservationist from Turners Station, Md. Speed, who emerges in the book’s pages as a guide in Skloot’s attempts to win the confidence of the Lacks family, brought listeners to their feet when she said Henrietta Lacks never really died as long as her cells continue to reproduce:
“She lives in all of us, through the research that has been done on polio vaccine and others. She lives! She lives!” said Speed as the crowd roared.
Kimberley Lacks, daughter of Sonny Lacks, spoke for the family at the beginning of the program. Dressed in fire-engine red, a tribute to the nail polish color much beloved by her late grandmother, Kimberley Lacks described Henrietta as “a spiritual woman whose soul has captivated the world.”
“The world knows her as ‘a heroine of medicine ... but to our family she was and is a daughter, mother and grandmother,” said Kimberley Lacks. “She was an ordinary woman who was extraordinary in so many ways.”
Elaine Dairo, a cousin on the Pleasant side of the family — Henrietta Lacks’ father was a Pleasant and her name at birth was Loretta Pleasant, how she later took the name Henrietta isn’t known — volunteered the story of how she became aware of her family’s great legacy: from hearing about the book from a relative.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to read this book!’ recounted Dairo. Dairo’s son, recently accepted into medical school at Howard University and Indiana University, offered a similar reaction when his mother told him about the family connection to HeLa cells: ‘Get out of here!’”
Driving up to attend the service from Durham, N.C., was Dr. David Kroll, chairman of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at North Carolina Central University. Kroll, who in 1989 wrote his doctoral thesis on HeLa cells, said he was moved after reading the book to begin work on establishing a scholarship fund for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks.
“All throughout those 20 years, I’ve always wanted to come back and do something for your family,” said Kroll.
But he asked something first: “I would he honored if the family members would sign my thesis,” he said, drawing cheers.”
Saying, “I want to speak to the young people,” Kroll talked about the example of his mother, who faced a cancer diagnosis while Kroll was still a child, and drew parallels to the fate of Henrietta Lacks. She should be a powerful inspiration to the current generation, he said.
“Her name is world famous. We talk about Barack Obama, we talk about Roosevelt, we talk about Abraham Lincoln — I would put Mrs. Henrietta Lacks up there with any one of them,” said Kroll.
The Rev. Alfred Chandler, pastor of the hosting St. Matthew Baptist Church, where Mrs. Lacks was baptized as a member, wrestled with the definition of legacy: “What is a legacy? Some think it’s about the tangible things you leave behind,” he said. “Today we have heard about a woman whose legacy is a very part of her life. That is a legacy that money can’t buy.”
That Henrietta Lacks was unheralded in life and unappreciated for many years following her death, said Chandler, shows that God alone knows of his designs for humankind. “When you look at a person, don’t be so quick to make a judgment. You never know that person’s story.”
Rep. Tom Perriello, who presented the Lacks family with an entry into the Congressional Record in honor of Henrietta Lacks, spoke of the “seen and unseen” nature of her legacy, “a savior here on Earth who goes unseen, a woman whose impact goes unseen.”
Perriello alluded to the “dark side of the story,” the fact that “millions have been made on her legacy and yet members of her family struggle to pay for their health care.” Perriello also drew upon his mission work in Africa to observe that polio and other diseases long eradicated in the United States continue to exist elsewhere in the world, but “millions of lives have been saved” because of HeLa cells.
“Everyone of us who has knowledge of Henrietta Lacks, who has knowledge of the many injustices that have occurred, who has knowledge of how her cells can carry forth [scientific] knowledge, we should be engaged,” said Perriello.
A headstone for Henrietta Lacks, placed at the family cemetery days before the service, provides a long-awaited epitaph for a medical pioneer whose memory, in the words of the gospel spiritual, was lost before it was found:
“In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touches the lives of many / Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever. Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family.”
Commentsi want to commend the writers and the media for support this family.My family comes from the Clover as well our homestead was owned by the Lacks family I would be nice to explore new possibilities.Great story
- By melinda j g hyman on 04 / 06 / 11
CommentsSo happy she got recognition for her role in health care-and a headstone- this story made me angry and also brought me to tears
- By SHARON DOMINGUEZ-ANDREWS on 11 / 25 / 11
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