Son of “The Immortal Henrietta Lacks” at WC
CHESTERTOWN, MD—David “Sonny” Lacks, whose mother is the subject of Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling bookThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, visited Washington College on Tuesday, February 21 to talk about his family’s reaction to learning that their late mother’s cells were being sold in the billions for use in laboratories around the world. The event, a moderated discussion with the audience, took place at 5 p.m. in Decker Theatre, Gibson Center for the Arts, followed by a reception in the Underwood Lobby.
Sponsored by the College’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, William James Forum, Black Studies Program, and Department of Philosophy, the event was free and open to the public.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American tobacco farmer and mother of five whose cells, harvested without her knowledge in 1951, the year she died of cervical cancer, became the first immortal human cells to be grown in a laboratory. Nicknamed HeLa cells, they became an important tool for modern medicine and remain the most widely used cell line in the world today.
Sonny Lacks and his siblings first learned of the cells in the 1970s when researchers wanted to conduct tests on them to learn more about the HeLa line. It has been a point of controversy that, although biotech companies have profited from sales of the HeLa cells, the family has never been financially compensated.
The story was catapulted into the national conscience when author Skloot published her book in 2010. In his well-received lecture Sonny Lacks celebrated his mother’s legacy and offered a personal perspective on the collision of medicine, race, ethics and business represented by her story.