Marking the magnificent memory of Henrietta Lacks

This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 31 May 2010.

The newly-dedicated gravestone in the Lacks family cemetery, Clover, VA. Credit: David Kroll

In addition to my own photos herein, Tom McLaughlin posted a nice slide show of the day at his South Boston News & Record.

Despite two trees that snapped and fell in my driveway within six feet of my car in an impressive thunderstorm Friday evening, I drove on Saturday morning to Clover, Virginia, for the dedication of a gravestone that finally marks the final resting place of Henrietta Lacks, a concrete honor, if you will, to recognize the source of one of the most valuable medical tools of the 20th century and today.

For those who are not regular readers, Henrietta Lacks was a rural tobacco farmer, mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend from southern Virginia who developed an unusually aggressive case of cervical cancer while living in Baltimore in 1951. While being treated at Johns Hopkins University, surgeons excised pieces of her tumor in an ongoing effort by the laboratory of Dr. George Gey to establish a continuously growing human tumor cell line in culture, a feat that had only been previously accomplished with mouse cells. Ms. Lacks’s cells are today known by the name, HeLa (hee-luh), and have been used from the fifties in testing the effectiveness of the original Salk polio vaccine up through today providing the basis for the new cervical cancer vaccines. I would not be overstating the case to say that most biomedical scientists have at one time or another worked with HeLa cells.

However, the identity of Henrietta Lacks as the unknowing donor of the cells that gave rise to so many medical discoveries – a poor Black woman, mind you – as well as the story of her family and their travails at the hand of the medical establishment had largely gone untold until the 1980s, even among scientists themselves.

But with the help of the family – especially Henrietta’s late daughter, Deborah – scientists, historians, and her own tenacious investigative skills, journalist and author Rebecca Skloot spent the last ten years researching and gorgeously crafting a book on the HeLa story that has become this year’s best-selling non-fiction gem, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. If you have not yet read the book, you are missing out on what Dwight Garner of The New York Times called, “one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.”

A black woman, a white boy, and a PhD
My own interest in the story extends beyond my general fascination with the history of science and medicine. It is far more personal.

As I wrote in November on the 20th anniversary of my PhD dissertation defense, HeLa cells were the primary experimental system for my study of the anticancer drug target, DNA topoisomerase IIα. Moreover, HeLa cells were also the source of genomic DNA I needed to understand the enzyme’s regulation when I started my own laboratory in 1992. They ended up providing the topic of the first published paper from my independent group: me, my first PhD student, and first technician.

So when I learned that from the South Boston (VA) News & Record that the Lacks family had planned a memorial dedication service for Ms. Lacks’s headstone, I just had to attend.

The headstone was provided by a Morehouse School of Medicine donation from Dr. Roland Pattillo and his wife, Pat. Dr. Pattillo is an ob/gyn physician-scientist at the Morehouse School of Medicine who has largely been the medical guardian of the Lacks family and who provided the entré to Ms. Skloot after she convinced him of her sincerity in telling the story of the family and their matriarch. Pattillo is also himself a notable scientist of historic stature and a living connection to Dr. George Gey. Among his own four decades of accomplishments, Dr. Pattillo worked at Hopkins with Gey in the sixties on the hormonal aspects of neuroendocrine tumors and, as detailed in a 1968 Science paper, established the BeWo choriocarcinoma cell line, the first immortalized line to produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). hCG is the hormone produced by the placenta that is detected in clinical and home pregnancy tests.

A surreal moment. Credit: Tom McLaughlin

To the right is Dr. Pattillo at the gravesite with yours truly showing off his 20-year-old dissertation. Two Lacks family members are also shown sharing addresses on top of Skloot’s book. You’ll note that the gravestone is also in the shape of a book, representing the many stories that have come from the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.

The service began at St. Matthew Baptist Church in Clover, the church where Henrietta had been a member since 1932. My intention had been just to drive up and quietly pay my respects, maybe even get a photo of my dissertation at Henrietta’s gravesite. Such intentions were derailed by one of the nice usherette ambassadors at St Matthew who asked if I was a dignitary (no) but then insisted that I sit with the press and go have a word with the pastor, Reverend Alfred Chandler. Reverend Chandler then asked that I speak to the standing room-only congregation that included dozens of Lacks family members about how my personal and professional life had been touched by the woman from Clover. Time was set aside for friends and family to share such brief reflections.

Just as an aside: I’ve now lived in the South for a third of my life. For the last ten years I’ve lived in a town with an equal 45% African-American and White population and am a prof at a historically-Black university. It never ceases to amaze me how warmly welcoming the Black community has been to me, everywhere from Virginia to Florida, and in a manner that belies the converse treatment of the community for centuries. In fact, if I could join a Black congregation, I’d probably still be going church.

I was beaming when I learned that the first scripture reading was the famous Ecclesiastes passage (3:1-8) upon which Pete Seeger wrote Turn! Turn! Turn! (The song was made popular by The Byrds in 1965 and discussed on this blog, with a Byrds reunion performance, here.). In the context of the other speakers, it was clear that this day was one to heal, build up, laugh, dance, and, most certainly, a time to embrace – I haven’t been hugged so much since my last visit with my large family from New Jersey.

Kimberley Lacks

Opening words on behalf of the Lacks family were offered by Kimberley Lacks, daughter of Sonny Lacks, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks. Kimberley stressed a major point that Skloot’s book did so extraordinarily well: for us to remember that her grandmother was a real woman who worked in the fields, cooked, danced, and wanted the world for her children like any other parent.

Kimberley then expressed the families gratitude for those who did just that, first and foremost thanking Rebecca Skloot for her ten-year journey with the family and scientists worldwide to bring the Henrietta Lacks story to the attention of all people, not just us in science and medicine.

Then, Kimberley said something I want all writers to know:

“Thanks to the media for bringing the story of Henrietta Lacks to the world.”

I joked with the writers and TV folks there as to when the last time was that they were expressly thanked for their work. But remember this, my journalism friends: you do make a difference. Because of this essential role you play in society, we just have to figure how to make the profession more financially viable for as many of you as possible in the new media landscape.

I had the distinct pleasure of being seated next to Attorney William Bryant Claiborne and his wife. Attorney Claiborne is a proud graduate of Virginia State University, a superb HBCU in Petersburg, and then earned a law degree at the University of Virginia. His colleagues thought he was out of his mind to come back to his rural home to practice but he reminded me that his home folk need legal services just as badly as those in Richmond and DC. Mr. Claiborne certainly walks that talk – also serving on the Halifax County Board of Supervisors. In this capacity, he presented the Lacks family (below) with a resolution honoring Henrietta Lacks, saying “we are so proud she lies in our county.”

Atty William Bryant Claiborne reads a Halifax County resolution honoring Henrietta Lacks. Credit: David Kroll

A rare experience for a scientist
While anxiously reflecting on the comments I was about to give, I recalled the fact that I felt embarrassed that my dissertation included nothing more about HeLa cells than the paragraph excerpted in this post, and certainly nothing about the woman from whom the cells were derived. Twenty years later, this is an even more glaring omission. So, I used the opportunity to thank the family for the gift of their matriarch. While I couldn’t change the past treatment of the family, I can play a part in moving forward and was therefore honored to be asked by Rebecca Skloot to serve with Dr. Pattillo on the board of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to bring scholarship support to today’s young descendants and others whose lives have been adversely affected by medical research conducted without informed consent. (Rebecca is donating a portion of book proceeds to the Foundation.)

And I didn’t even think about this until I was standing before the congregation – I told the family that I would be honored for them to sign my dissertation because this PhD work was as much theirs as mine.

I also had a few other things to say regarding the impact of HeLa cells on me personally and professionally and on other scientists and physicians around the world and how literally world-famous Henrietta Lacks is now. This gift of their matriarch, through her own suffering, has facilitated our efforts to relieve the suffering of literally millions of other people. The use of HeLa cells (and other cell lines overtaken by HeLa cells) led to the development of some drugs that treated my own mother who was stricken with a lymph node-positive breast cancer when I was a junior in college, stimulating me to become a cancer researcher and allowing her to now be a 26-year breast cancer survivor.

I was also sure to address the young people in the audience, family and otherwise, to encourage them in science and medicine and offered our them an open invitation to visit with us in our laboratories and classrooms in the Research Triangle area.

These words got some applause and a few Amens and “Praise Jesus!” – affirmations and feedback that we rarely get in the context of university auditoriums and seminar programs. Knowing more about the Black church since moving to the South makes these affirmations even more meaningful.

I do not yet have the writing skills to adequately express how moving this experience was for me to have the opportunity to face the family and express my gratitude that the life I have today – the wife, daughter, house, guitars – stems from a story of injustice across the decades. Because of today’s clinical guidelines for anonymizing human tissue specimens, we most often have no idea as to who exactly provided the biological research tools we use in the laboratory. But to be hugged by Sonny Lacks and literally and philosophically embraced by so many of the family is an experience I will never forget.

And now that several dozen members of the Lacks family have autographed and inscribed my dissertation, it somehow seems more complete.

Many of the family also put in their telephone numbers, quite ironic knowing how difficult it was for Rebecca to even get family members to return her phone calls for the first couple of years of her writing.

The guest speakers that followed were uniformly outstanding beginning with Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the Halifax NAACP chapter. Rev. Ronnie Womack, mediator of the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, gave us some of the most motivating old-time preaching, stressing that the day was one for unification – implying, to me at least, that we were there to recognize that the gift of a Black woman has impacted the lives of all racial and ethnic groups – and “that when CNN rolls across the bottom of the screen that a cure for cancer has been found,” that Henrietta Lacks will be part of that story.

The highlight for many of us was when Dr. Roland Pattillo took the pulpit to humbly note his role in the day and the generosity of he and his wife in providing the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks together with the Morehouse School of Medicine. In noting that over 60,000 peer-reviewed publications have made use of HeLa cells, Pattillo told us that even today, another such paper is published at a rate of one every two hours. Dr. Pattillo is deserving of his own blog post and I look forward to telling more of his story.

At the other end of the spectrum was the next speaker, a remarkable young man, freshman congressman Rep. Tom Perriello (I can say that because he’s about a decade my junior). An undergrad and law graduate of Yale University, this native of Virginia’s 5th district reflected on his work in West Africa where polio continues to afflict millions despite the millions saved in Western nations thanks to the role HeLa cells played early in vaccine development. Perriello excerpted a resolution he read into the Congressional Record last Friday recognizing Henrietta Lacks (“Honoring Henrietta Pleasant-Lacks” full text).

As a side note, I drove past many advertisements for his Republican opponent, Robert Hurt, that read, “HURT U.S. Congress.”

My immediate thoughts were, no thank you – you’ve hurt it enough already.

Perriello is an energetic politician who causes Republicans to froth because of his dedication to the military, international relations, workforce development, and establishment of faith-based aid groups while also putting forth such heresy and tyranny as affordable health care and asking his campaign workers to also “tithe” hours on community service projects unrelated to the election. His district runs from the North Carolina border to north of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, where his support is quite strong. I took it as a compliment that Rep. Perriello stopped me afterward to say I’d make a good politician – if it meant being like him, I would.

Reverend Alfred Chandler then closed with words that I think we can all do well to remember – that when we see someone in our community and feel an urge to pass judgment, bear in mind that we have no idea as to that person’s story.

At the end of Lacks Town Rd., Clover, VA. Credit: David Kroll

Gravestone dedication
We were then off to the Lacks family cemetery on the property of the old home-house down Lacks Town Road, an absolutely beautiful stretch of rolling farmland. The photo above was taken looking south from the intersection of Mt. Laurel and Lacks Town Rd.

About 100 people remained from the church service to dedicate the Henrietta Lacks gravestone just to the left of that of her mother, Eliza Pleasant. Another gravestone also being dedicated was that for Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter who died at age 15 at the Crownsville State Hospital, known then as The Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. The story of Elsie and the visit there by Rebecca and Deborah Lacks has been cited by many as one of the most emotional parts of Skloot’s book.

Henrietta’s son, Sonny (David), with NPR Forester, caretaker of the Lacks family cemetery. Credit: David Kroll

With all of the press attention, Sonny Lacks made it a point to introduce to all NPR “Butch” Forester, the groundskeeper who maintains the previously overgrown Lacks family cemetery in its now peaceful and reverent state.

I also had the chance to walk over to the home-house where Henrietta, her husband David, and children lived. It’s tougher to see now than in the winter due to the trees and undergrowth but you can get a better glimpse of it from the photos then at Rebecca Skloot’s website.

And before heading back on the road, the church and family had a nice repast dinner with fried chicken, green beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, meatballs, rice, and – nom! – chocolate cake.

Put simply, this was the single most moving day in my life as a scientist.

Following is a press coverage roundup of the Henrietta Lacks headstone memorial dedication:

 

Lauren Compton and her videographer from WSET-TV in Lynchburg wrote this article and filed a segment from the station having only an hour to get back to the studio, thereby missing the repast. Beyond being a superb reporter, Ms. Compton did not have to refer to the songsheet to sing the words to the hymns.

I had a lovely time chatting with Denise Watson Batts of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot who wrote “After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone.” Denise also had an excellent interview earlier this month in Baltimore with Sonny Lacks, eldest brother, Lawrence, and cousin Sadie Grinnan.

A superb writer, editor, and a fine gentleman, Tom McLaughlin, wrote this nicely detailed article for his South Boston News & Record. Although the press took numerous photographs at the services, only Tom put up a slideshow of 49 photos within that story. Tom and his mother, Sylvia O. McLaughlin, editor of the News & Record, are extremely proud of their newspaper and readers know that I am a huge fan of local news. The level of detail that local writers and publishers puts into such stories (or should) reminds us of the importance of sustained local reporting. I’m grateful to Tom and his Mom for sending me home with a few issues of their paper that covered Skloot’s book and the Lacks family stories. Tom’s own review of the book speaks from the viewpoint of a Southside Virginia native.

Tim Saunders from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, birthplace of Henrietta Lacks filed this article and video, “Halifax County community pays tribute to world famous native,” today.

A brief note appeared on June 1 on the website of Essence magazine.

Many thanks also go to Melissa Bell from The Washington Post and graduate of Northwestern University School of Journalism who patiently listened to my stories and whose work I look forward to reading.

I also want to publicly thank my lovely wife, PharmGirl, MD, and the illustrious PharmKid for understanding how much being away for this event meant to me. As always, I was on science time and a quick “couple of hours” trip took all of Saturday, a holiday weekend day we really needed to spend together after I’ve been out of town and away for other university events.

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9 Responses to Marking the magnificent memory of Henrietta Lacks

  1. Pingback: Best wishes and a thank-you to Rep. Tom Perriello (D, VA-05) | Take As Directed

  2. Melvin A. Dupree says:

    This article made me teary-eyed. To see, hear and feel the travails and victories of this family for long-overdue recognition just . . . wow, leaves me speechless. Thank you for such a moving and vulnerable posting.

  3. David says:

    Thank you, Mr. Dupree. I consider myself blessed to have been part of this experience and it will stay with me for the rest of my life. I greatly appreciate that fact that you took the time to read this. Many thanks.

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  7. Lisa Porter says:

    Hello -

    I finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks while recovering from surgery this past week. I am a 51 year old white, single mother, in Houston, Texas. The book touched my life so strongly and urged me to google more information about this remarkable story and the Lacks family. I enjoyed your story (above) so much. It was well done, moving and another fitting part of this very emotional piece of history.

    Kind regards,
    Lisa Porter
    Houston, Texas

  8. David Kroll says:

    My sincerest thanks to you, Ms. Porter. The honor was mine – I’m incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to share this experience with readers.

  9. Pingback: Who is Henrietta Lacks? « Places of Segregation