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Son discusses mother’s medical legacy, life

Sarah Swiderski | Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On Tuesday evening, members of the Saint Mary’s community learned about the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, an unlikely but remarkable hero of American medical research, during an event featuring her son, David Lacks.

After Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells were harvested without her consent or knowledge in 1951, the so-called “HeLa” cells were used to test the first polio vaccine, cloned and used to map human genes.

Her story has since been publicized in a book titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by author Rebecca Skloot, who will visit Saint Mary’s on Feb. 27.

During a question-and-answer session facilitated by political science professor Marc Belanger and senior London Lamar, David and his wife Shirley addressed some of the issues discussed in Skloot’s book and shared their personal experiences with Henrietta.

David said he and his sister Deborah remembered little about their mother because she died of cervical cancer when David was four years old.

“I remember it was dark and rainy at her funeral,” David said. “That’s the only memory I have of her.”

This lack of knowledge prompted Deborah to investigate their mother’s life, David said.

“My sister was the only one who really wanted to find out,” he said.

Shirley, who knew Deborah before she met David, said she remembers Deborah’s keen interest in her mother’s life.

“[Deborah would say] ‘Shirley, I would love to know about my mother. … My father won’t talk to me. My brother won’t talk to me. No one will talk to me,'” Shirley said.

The family began to put the pieces of Henrietta’s life together when Skloot approached them about researching their mother.

One audience member asked David how Skloot could have discovered some of the information included in her book.

“I take it like this: She found out information from someone,” David said. “I just figure it that way, it happened.”

Shirley said she believes the book to be factually accurate.

“I don’t think [Skloot] would write something that wasn’t true. She went around and did a lot of research,” she said. “What Rebecca wrote is true … but she did it in the writer’s style.”

Although Henrietta’s cells were procured in an ethically questionable manner, David said he believed his mother would be glad her cells are helping facilitate medical advances.

“From what I understand, she was a giving person, a loving person,” he said. “She wouldn’t object to giving her cells.”

David also said he would not mind donating some of his own cells for research.

“Without research, there are no cures,” he said.

No matter the implications of using HeLa cells without Henrietta’s knowledge, David said he is proud of his mother’s contribution to science.

“I guess it was a situation where it was gratifying, something I felt good about to have someone from my family to give to the world,” Lacks said. “[HeLa cells] are out there giving and they keep on giving. What I want people to remember about the HeLa cells is that [they came] from Henrietta Lacks.”

Contact Sarah Swiderski at sswide01@saintmarys.edu