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Cuesta’s Book of the Year celebrates the life and the legacy of Henrietta Lacks

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Cuesta's Book of the Year, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Cuesta's Book of the Year, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Taylor Saugstad & Emily Morales

Over 65 years ago, cancer cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks, removed without her knowledge or her consent by medical researchers.

Lacks’s grandchildren, Alfred Carter Jr. and Kim Lacks, spoke at Cuesta College’s ninth annual Book of the Year event, which was held at Cuesta’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center on April 12.

Alfred Carter Jr. and Kim Lacks discussed their grandmother’s remarkable legacy and the nonfiction book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The book chronicles the journey of Henrietta Lacks’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, and author Rebecca Skloot’s research on the history of Henrietta Lacks’s cells.

The conversation was moderated by Cuesta English professor, Matthew Davis. Skloot did not attend the event.

They spoke about the importance of the book, their perspective on the legacy of their grandmother’s HeLa cells and her large contribution to medical science without recognition.

“It’s sad and bittersweet that she’s [Deborah Lacks] not here to see her mom’s story,” said Alfred Carter Jr. “At the end of the day, you have to look at the positive and see how much her cells have helped people.”

Carter Jr. happily expressed how gratifying it is to see his grandmother’s cells make a difference and serve a purpose. He stated that his mother would be proud of her cells contributing so much to medical science.

To this day, the Lacks family remains upset and frustrated that there wasn’t compensation for the unconsented use of Henrietta Lacks’s cells.

“The family had no idea that for twenty years advancements in science came about because of her cells,” said Kim Lacks, niece of Deborah Lacks.

The book has received largely favorable reviews from the literary and scientific communities. In 2010 the book had spent 75 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and was named as the best book of the year by more than 60 media outlets.

Henrietta Lacks’s cells, known in the medical field as HeLa cells, have led to extraordinary advances in science, health and medicine, helping people since her death of cervical cancer in 1951.

The HeLa immortal cell line has been used by medical scientists in the development of the polio vaccine, vitro fertilization, gene mapping and even cloning research. The HeLa cells continue to be used in many forms of scientific research to this day. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, and yet she remains virtually unknown.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has been turned into an HBO film, starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta Lacks’s daughter, Deborah Lacks.

“I would like for the movie to shed light on Henrietta Lacks, the contributions she made to the medical world and also to show the world how determined my mother was, not only to find out about her mother herself, but to let the world know who her mother was,” said Alfred Carter Jr., son of Deborah Lacks.

At the end of conversation, Alfred Carter Jr. and Kim Lacks were honored with a standing ovation following the discussion.
The scientific community agrees that Henrietta Lacks’s cells have led to innovative medical progress, helping many people and making a huge positive impact on not only scientifical research but the family itself knowing that their family legacy will forever live on.