Saturday, March 3, 2012

In praise of Deborah Lacks

Deborah Lacks with an image of her mother's cells
Henrietta Lacks continues to fascinate scientists, sociologists, and ordinary people of all backgrounds. Yet it was her daughter Deborah who held my attention as I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This young woman, who lost her mother as a baby, managed to survive an abusive stepmother, lecherous cousins, teen pregnancy, and two failed marriages. Her formal education was limited, her health and family problems numerous. Yet through it all she persevered, and managed to channel her anger and terror over losing her mother and sister into determination to do better for herself and her family. Her slowly growing friendship with author Rebecca Skloot was for me the emotional heart of the book.

To learn more about Deborah,  the Lacks family, and Skloot's foundation to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions,  visit The Immortal Life website. There are interviews with Skloot, discussion questions, and updates on HeLa cell research. You can even submit your own video to share your thoughts about the book!

And of course, don't forget to join us at EPL on Tuesday March 13th for our discussion! 7:00 pm, Small Meeting Room, 1703 Orrington Avenue, Evanston. We have copies available for book group participants: just call us at 847-448-8620 to get one.


  1. “HeLa Family Stories: Lawrence and Bobbette,” is a short (11,750 word), collaborative memoir that marks the first time that members of the Lacks family have directly presented their own stories, from their own perspectives, in print to the reading public. This fascinating, first-hand look from inside the family of Henrietta Lacks will interest anyone who wants to learn, or learn more, about Henrietta and HeLa cells.

    Lawrence Lacks was only sixteen years old when his mother, Henrietta Lacks, suffered a rapid and painful death from cervical cancer in the “colored ward” of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. More than two decades later, Lawrence and his wife Bobbette learned that the unique cancer cells responsible for Henrietta’s death had been harvested from her body, cultivated in a Johns Hopkins laboratory, and distributed to researchers around the world as "HeLa" cells.

    Lawrence’s memories, which include firsthand descriptions of daily life with his mother, Henrietta, are interwoven with Bobbette’s recollections of her own youth and of her attempts to save Lawrence’s motherless younger siblings from an abusive environment. Together they provide a new and vivid picture of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who brought HeLa cells to the world, and the struggles of the family she left behind.

    Hope Lacks
    Lacks Family Hela Foundation

  2. I listened to the audio book. Fantastic, historical, and everything else.

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