Telling the story in their own words
Wednesday, 10 July 2013 11:36

Family of Henrietta Lacks releases memoir

by Nicole Rodman

Lawrence Lacks was just 16 years old when his mother Henrietta, a resident of Turner Station, died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951.
    It was more than 20 years later when Lawrence and his family first learned that his mother’s cells were harvested without her knowledge or consent by doctors at Hopkins and used in medical research around the world.
    Using Henrietta Lacks’ rapidly-reproducing cells (known as HeLa cells), scientists made countless medical breakthroughs, developing the polio vaccine and conducting research into conditions such as cancer and AIDS.
    Following this revelation, Lacks’ story remained largely untold until the 2010 publication of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
    It was Skloot’s book that rekindled public interest in Lacks’ story, and led Lawrence Lacks and his wife, Bobbette, to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks in their own words.
    “After we appeared as characters in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, everybody wants to know what we are doing, and how we are doing, and why we are doing it,” Lawrence Lacks wrote in an e-mail to The Eagle last week.
    He continued, “So I wanted to share my personal memories of my mother and me together in Turner Station, and to give people the real experience of what she was like, and what it was like to live with her.”
    To that end, Lawrence and his wife have released a new book, HeLa Family Stories: Lawrence and Bobbette.
    Written with co-author A.D. Lively, the book details Lawrence’s memories of growing up with Henrietta Lacks.
    While Skloot’s book told much of the story of Henrietta Lacks and her “immortal” cells, Lawrence’s book aims to share what Lacks was really like, as a loving mother and a real-life person.
    “With everything that is going on today, with all of the privacy issues that are coming from technology, it’s important for people to remember that there are real human beings behind these cells,” Lawrence explained. “So talking about what Mom was like as a human being, and as a wife and mother, that is an important piece of the puzzle when talking about these bigger things.”
    The book, currently available on, is a 49-page electronic book (e-book).

According to Lawrence, HeLa Family Stories  was released as an e-book so that the family would retain control over what appeared in the book.
    Additionally, publishing the book in an electronic format was much less expensive than traditional print publication.
    “This is strictly a do-it-yourself operation. We have gotten a lot of attention from the publicity around Mom’s cells, but Bobbette and I haven’t made a cent from it. So we are having to start from scratch, and printing things costs money,” Lawrence explained.
    He did note that, if successful, he would consider publishing a print version of the book in the future.
    As part of the release of HeLa Family Stories, Lawrence and his family have formed HeLa Family Enterprises, LLC.
    Headed by Lawrence’s granddaughter, Courtnee Lacks, HeLa Family Enterprises is focused on releasing the new e-book and sharing the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.
    “Young people need to feel that what they are learning is culturally relevant,” Courtnee Lacks stated in a press release announcing the new book.
    She added, “And it has been thrilling to watch my great-grandmother Henrietta provide that connection for them, especially young women and African-Americans who have historically felt excluded from scientific discovery.”
    If successful, HeLa Family Enterprises hopes to turn HeLa Family Stories into a series.
    As Lawrence noted, “We hope this is just a first installment of HeLa Family Stories, and for now the enterprise is going to focus on that. We’ve set this up to where other family members can come along and tell their own stories.”
    Today, much of the Lacks family still lives in Turner Station and, despite the fortune made off of products derived from HeLa cells, none of them have seen a dime of the proceeds.
    Money raised from the sale of HeLa Family Stories will go back into building HeLa Family Enterprises.
    It is the Lacks family’s hope that, with this business venture, they will be able to build a future for their family and others.
    “Hopefully, we can be successful enough to make jobs for other family members and even others in the community,” Lawrence wrote.
    He noted, “A lot of good businesses have come from Turner Station, and I would be really proud if the Lacks family could add to that list with HeLa Family Enterprise, and contribute something back to a community that has been really good to us.”
    Available now for $2.99, HeLa Family Stories: Lawrence and Bobbett can be purchased online at
    While the book is available for the Amazon Kindle e-reader, customers do not need a Kindle to read the book.
    The book is also available for download to smart phones, tablets and desktop computers. 
    For more information on HeLa Family Stories and HeLa Family Enterprises, visit the web at www.