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Henrietta Lacks: Home

Rebecca Skloot


Investigator and Author for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Characters from the Book

Cast of Characters

Immediate Lacks Family
David “Day” Lacks—Henrietta’s husband and cousin
David Jr. “Sonny” Lacks—Henrietta and Day’s third child
Deborah “Dale” Lacks—Henrietta and Day’s fourth child
Eliza Lacks Pleasant—Henrietta’s mother. She died when Henrietta was four.
Elsie Lacks (born Lucille Elsie Pleasant)— Henrietta’s second born and eldest daughter. She was institutionalized
due to epilepsy and died at age fifteen.
Gladys Lacks—Henrietta’s sister, who disapproved of Henrietta’s marriage to Day
Johnny Pleasant—Henrietta’s father. He left his ten children when their mother died.
Lawrence Lacks—Henrietta and Day’s firstborn child
Loretta Pleasant—Henrietta’s birth name
Tommy Lacks—Henrietta and Day’s grandfather who raised both of them
Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joe Lacks)— Henrietta and Day’s fifth child. Henrietta was diagnosed with
cervical cancer shortly after his birth.
Extended Lacks Family
Albert Lacks— Henrietta’s white great-grandfather. He had five children by a former slave named Maria and left
part of the Lacks plantation to them. This section became known as “Lacks Town.”
Alfred “Cheetah” Carter—Deborah’s first husband. The marriage was abusive and ended in divorce.
Alfred Jr.—Deborah and Cheetah’s firstborn child and Little Alfred’s father
Bobette Lacks— Lawrence’s wife. She helped raise Lawrence’s siblings after Henrietta’s death and advocated
for them when she discovered they were being abused.
Cliff Garret—Henrietta’s cousin. As children, they worked the tobacco fields together.
“Crazy Joe” Grinnan—Henrietta’s cousin who competed unsuccessfully with Day for her affection
Davon Meade—Deborah’s grandson who often lived with and took care of her
Ethel—Galen’s wife, an abusive caregiver to Henrietta’s three youngest children
Fred Garret—Henrietta’s cousin who convinced Day and Henrietta to move to Turner Station
Galen— Henrietta’s cousin. He and his wife, Ethel, moved in with Day after Henrietta’s death to help
take care of the children. He ended up abusing Deborah.
Gary Lacks—Gladys’s son and Deborah’s cousin. A lay preacher, he performed a faith healing on Deborah.
LaTonya—Deborah and Cheetah’s second child; Davon’s mother
“Little Alfred”—Deborah’s grandson
Margaret Sturdivant— Henrietta’s cousin and confidante. Henrietta went to her house after radiation
treatments at Johns Hopkins.
Reverend James Pullum—Deborah’s second ex-husband, a former steel-mill worker who became a preacher
Sadie Sturdivant— Margaret’s sister, Henrietta’s cousin and confidante. She supported Henrietta during
her illness. She and Henrietta sometimes sneaked out to go dancing.

Members of the Medical and Scientific Community
Alexis Carrel—French surgeon and Nobel Prize recipient who claimed to have cultured “immortal” chicken-heart cells
Chester Southam— cancer researcher who conducted unethical experiments to see whether or not HeLa could “infect”
people with cancer
Christoph Lengauer— cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins who helped develop FISH, a technique used to detect and
identify DNA sequences, and who reached out to members of the Lacks family
Emanuel Mandel— director of medicine at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital (JCDH) who partnered
with Southam in unethical experiments
Dr. George Gey— head of tissue-culture research at Johns Hopkins. He developed the techniques used to
grow HeLa cells from Henrietta’s cancer tissue in his lab.
Howard Jones—Henrietta’s gynecologist at Johns Hopkins
Leonard Hayflick— microbiologist who proved that normal cells die when they’ve doubled about fifty times.
This is known as the Hayflick limit.
Margaret Gey—George Gey’s wife and research assistant. She was trained as a surgical nurse.
Mary Kubicek—George Gey’s lab assistant who cultured HeLa cells for the first time
Richard Wesley TeLinde— one of the top cervical cancer experts in the country at the time of Henrietta’s diagnosis.
His research involved taking tissue samples from Henrietta and other cervical cancer
patients at Johns Hopkins.
Roland Pattillo— professor of gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine who was one of George Gey’s only African
American students. He organizes a yearly HeLa conference at Morehouse in Henrietta’s honor.
Stanley Gartler— the geneticist who dropped the “HeLa bomb” when he proposed that many of the most commonly
used cell cultures had been contaminated by HeLa
Susan Hsu— the postdoctoral student in Victor McKusick’s lab who was assigned to make contact with the Lackses
and request samples from them for genetic testing without informed consent
Victor McKusick— geneticist at Johns Hopkins who conducted research on samples taken from Henrietta’s children
without informed consent to learn more about HeLa cells
Walter Nelson-Rees— the geneticist who tracked and published the names of cell lines contaminated with HeLa
without first warning the researchers he exposed. He became known as a vigilante.

Journalists and Others
Courtney “Mama” Speed— resident of Turner Station and owner of Speed’s Grocery. She organized an effort to
build a Henrietta Lacks museum.
John Moore— cancer patient who unsuccessfully sued his doctor and the regents of the University of California
over the use of his cells to create the Mo cell line
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot
A Broadway Paperback • ISBN 978-1-4000-5218-9 • •
A Reader’s Guide
Michael Gold— author of A Conspiracy of Cells. He published details from Henrietta’s medical records
and autopsy report without permission from the Lacks family.
Michael Rogers— Rolling Stone reporter who wrote an article about the Lacks family in 1976.
He was the first journalist to contact the Lackses.
Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield—attempted to sue Johns Hopkins and the Lacks family
Ted Slavin— a hemophiliac whose doctor told him his cells were valuable. Slavin founded Essential Biologicals,
a company that sold his cells, and later cells from other people so individuals could profit from their
own biological materials.

Courtesy of Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks



The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

From a single, abbreviated life grew a seemingly immortal line of cells that made some of the most crucial innovations in modern science possible. And from that same life, and those cells, Rebecca Skloot has fashioned in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks a fascinating and moving story of medicine and family, of how life is sustained in laboratories and in memory. Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five in Baltimore, a poor African American migrant from the tobacco farms of Virginia, who died from a cruelly aggressive cancer at the age of 30 in 1951. A sample of her cancerous tissue, taken without her knowledge or consent, as was the custom then, turned out to provide one of the holy grails of mid-century biology: human cells that could survive--even thrive--in the lab. Known as HeLa cells, their stunning potency gave scientists a building block for countless breakthroughs, beginning with the cure for polio. Meanwhile, Henrietta's family continued to live in poverty and frequently poor health, and their discovery decades later of her unknowing contribution--and her cells' strange survival--left them full of pride, anger, and suspicion. For a decade, Skloot doggedly but compassionately gathered the threads of these stories, slowly gaining the trust of the family while helping them learn the truth about Henrietta, and with their aid she tells a rich and haunting story that asks the questions, Who owns our bodies? And who carries our memories? --Tom Nissley, (Retrieved July 11, 2011)

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