Bestselling book inspires Women's Studies event at Marshall

Updated 4 years ago Special to HNN Provided by Marshall University

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall University's women's studies program will present a unique event for the Marshall and greater Huntington communities called "The Truly Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 27, in the Marshall University Foundation Hall.

The event is based on a book by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which spent more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list and is read at college campuses across the country, including Marshall.

Lacks was an impoverished tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951. A sample of her cells was retained without her knowledge or consent. Medical researchers discovered her cells, known as HeLa, possessed unexplainable immortal properties. Over the past 60 years, HeLa cells have been instrumental in contributing to scientific breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.  Her cells have enabled scientists to better understand the effects of the atom bomb, cancer and HIV.  In total, HeLa cells have been the subject of more than 74,000 studies, and scientists estimate that more than 50 million metric tons have been cultured to date.  They are even being utilized in Marshall's Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. 

However, all of this work was undertaken without the knowledge and consent of either Lacks or her family. Her children never even knew about their mother's cells until the 1970s, when scientists attempted to experiment upon them.  None of the companies or laboratories who profited from the HeLa cells ever sought their consent. Skloot's book changed all that. Since its publication, Lacks' children and grandchildren have spoken out about their experiences all over the country.

The book grapples with issues essential to who we are as scholars and educators: the history of race in America, women's rights over their bodies, health care and poverty, and the ethics of the medical profession, said Dr. Laura Michele Diener, assistant professor of history at Marshall and one of the organizers of the event.

"Rebecca Skloot's 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' is a remarkable work of nonfiction," said Dr. Rachael Peckham, associate professor of English at Marshall. " . . . .it single-handedly impacted the way the American public thinks about the ethics and racial politics of biomedical research; about the ways a human life can both live on and be utterly forgotten in the wake of medical progress that could not have been realized without it." 

Now admirers of the book can meet two of Lacks' surviving family members in person and listen to their story, Diener said. "Marshall is honored to have David Lacks Jr. and Kim Lacks appear as guests to discuss the amazing legacy of their grandmother."

David Lacks Jr. is the grandson of Henrietta Lacks and son of David "Sonny" Lacks, a featured figure in the book. David Lacks Jr. has a degree in computer information systems and has traveled around the United States and Canada setting up computer systems and labs for companies and educational institutions.  He lends his talent by helping create and maintain the Lacks family website. He also represents the family on the National Institute of the Science's panel that reviews applications to conduct research using the HeLa genome.

Kim Lacks, a banking representative from Baltimore, is Henrietta Lacks' granddaughter. She has traveled with her father and other family members on dozens of trips around the country, adding her own perspective on the legacy of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells.  She is also one of the family members consulting on the highly-anticipated HBO film based on the book and produced by Oprah Winfrey and Allan Ball.

Marshall University President Stephen Kopp will introduce David Lacks Jr. and Kim Lacks at the event. Two Marshall students, one from the School of Medicine and one from the Honors College, will  moderate a question-and-answer session.  A book signing will follow the formal event, with copies of the book available for purchase.  The event is free and open to the public.

Maurice Cooley, associate vice president of intercultural affairs and director of the Center for African American Students at Marshall, said,  "The story and scientific discoveries originating from the very cells of Ms. Henrietta Lacks, as depicted by her grandchildren, will create a lasting and impactful memory. It is a joy to work with Marshall University Women's Studies to sponsor one of the most profoundly interesting chapters in modern science."

The day prior to the event, at 5 p.m. March 26, in the atrium of the Drinko Library, the Women's Studies Book Club will host a discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

"The Truly Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is sponsored by the Office of Medical Education, Office of Graduate Medical Education and Office of Diversity of the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine as well as the Women's Center, Intercultural Affairs, the Center for African American Students, the Office of the President, the Honors College, the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Department of Psychology and the Department of History of Marshall University.

For information, please contact Dawn Howerton (; 304-696-2914) or Diener (; 304-696-2954).
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