The Lacks family has enthralled university and library audiences across the country talking about their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Henrietta Lacks, and her transcendentally important contributions to science. The international success of Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has left people keenly interested in the Lacks family and Henrietta’s legacy. In their appearances, the family shares with audiences what it meant to find out—decades after the fact—that Henrietta’s cells were being used in laboratories around the world, bought and sold by the billions. With their visits, members of the Lacks family put a personal face on such issues as the dark history of medical experimentation on African-Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over informed consent. Their talks raise complicated questions about whether we control the stuff we’re made of, and whether we should share in the profits.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells, taken without her knowledge in 1951, went on to become the first immortal human cells ever grown in the laboratory. Those cells, dubbed HeLa, became one of the most important tools in modern medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Though Henrietta died in 1951, her cells—alive and growing to this day—are still the most widely used in the world.
Henrietta’s family didn’t learn that the cells existed until the 1970s, when scientists wanted to do research on her children—Lawrence, David “Sonny” Jr., Deborah, and Zakariyya—to learn more about the remarkable “immortality” of Henrietta’s cell line. Her children were then used in research without their consent, and without having their most basic questions answered, such as, “What is a cell?” and “What does it mean that Henrietta’s cells are alive?” Henrietta’s cells have helped biotech companies make millions of dollars, yet her family has never benefited from their commercialization.
In August 2013, 62 years after Henrietta’s death, the Lacks family reached an historic and unprecedented agreement with the National Institutes of Health. After a German lab posted the full HeLa genome online for anyone to see, Henrietta’s descendants came together with the NIH to consider options for protecting the family’s privacy without hindering medical and scientific advancement. The result is the groundbreaking HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement. Under this agreement, two members of the family join representatives from the medical, scientific, and bioethics communities on a new panel that reviews research proposals for use of the full HeLa genome sequence data and grants permission on a case-by-case basis. According to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, this marks the next chapter in the Lacks family’s contributions to the scientific community: “Just like their matriarch, the Lacks family continues to have a significant impact on medical progress by providing access to an important scientific tool that researchers will use to study the cause and effect of many diseases with the goal of developing treatments.”
Despite what the Lacks family has endured, they are proud to honor the memory of Henrietta and her unparalleled contributions to science. Their message is positive, optimistic, and—above all—a celebration of Henrietta’s life and legacy. They have visited over 100 communities and campuses, where their appearances give audiences an unforgettable first-person perspective on the collision between ethics, race, and the commercialization of human tissue, and how their experiences have impacted the Lacks family from generation to generation. Their story, as told in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, has sold more than 2.5 million copies around the world, and has been selected as a common read by more than 250 schools, libraries, and community institutions.
Since 2011, the Lyceum Agency has represented the following members of the Lacks family: David J. Lacks (Henrietta Lacks’s son), Shirley Lacks (Henrietta Lacks’s daughter-in-law), Alfred Carter, Jr. (Henrietta Lacks’s grandson), Jeri Lacks Whye (Henrietta Lacks’s granddaughter), David Lacks, Jr. (Henrietta Lacks’s grandson), Kim Lacks (Henrietta Lacks’s granddaughter), Victoria Baptiste (Henrietta Lacks’s great-granddaughter), and Veronica Robinson (Henrietta Lacks’s great-granddaughter).
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has also been made into an HBO film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. Several members of the family were brought on as consultants.
For more information on the Lacks family, please visit www.lacksfamily.net/.