Henrietta Lacks’ family to host All Campus Read discussion

Jan. 28, 2013

April Wefler
[email protected]

When you go to the doctor for blood work, possibly the furthest thing from your mind is that your cells could be taken without your knowledge and used for science.

However, Henrietta Lacks, a young, poor black woman in the 1950s, unknowingly had cells taken by her doctor. The cells, which would then become known as HeLa, outlived Lacks.

“It was a different culture – a different time,” Teri Switzer, dean of the Kraemer Family Library, said.

Although companies made millions from the cells, the Lacks family was unaware of their existence until the 1970s, when scientists experimented on Henrietta’s children, who did not profit from the commercialization of the HeLa cells.

Henrietta Lacks and her cells are the subjects in Rebecca Skloot’s non-fiction book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which was the All Campus Read choice for last year.

The library will host a reception with David “Sonny” Lacks and Veronica Spencer, the son and great-granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks, on Feb. 26 from 4-4:45 p.m. in the third-floor apse.

From 7-8 p.m. in Berger Hall, Lacks and Spencer will be available for questions. A book signing will follow from 8-8:45 p.m.

Lacks wants to share his family’s story. “He wants to carry on with some of the legacy that his mother has given. He’s really introspective in what happened to his family,” Switzer said.

Lyceum Agency, which selects and works with writers and speakers, said, “Sonny’s visits put a personal face to big issues such as the dark history of experimentation on African-Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over ‘informed consent.'”

Switzer said she was familiar with HeLa cells prior to reading Skloot’s novel; while reading the book, it made her question how often these types of situations occur.

“They [medical staff] take your blood, they take tissue samples, but you don’t question what happens to them. Is this an isolated case?” she said.

She added that Spencer is a student at Baltimore Community College and is studying to be an RN while mentoring Dunbar Scholars at Johns Hopkins.

“What a great opportunity for students to talk with her about her great-grandmother and, as a nursing student, what she thinks about her great-grandmother’s role in the advancement of medicine,” Switzer said.

Switzer said that Lacks won’t have a prepared speech. Rather, the event will be a question-and-answer session for the students and faculty in a living room setting.

“They don’t want a lecture; they want a discussion. They want to know what we think and what our students think. They want the audience to explore [the book] with them,” she said.

“It will give students an opportunity to hear first-hand from the family. They can ask questions and get answers without having any kind of filter,” she added.

The event is part of a series of discussions named Kraemer Conversations. The library has a lecture fund that will pay for the event.

The bulk of the money comes from the Kraemer Family Endowment and Douglas Johnson Endowment to provide for lectures and programs.

“I’m sure it’s been a real journey for the family. I’d like to know if their attitudes have changed about HeLa cells,” Switzer said, adding, “Hopefully, we’ll get some real thought-provoking questions and really probe into what the family thinks.”

Those that would like to send questions for Lacks ahead of time can email [email protected]. Free tickets are available in the library or at the University Center Info Desk until Feb. 19.