While others bowed their heads Saturday as a minister prayed over Henrietta Lacks’ grave, her oldest son, Lawrence, could only stare at his mother’s new headstone.
He remembered the good and the sad. How cancer took her from him and his siblings in 1951 while they were children in Baltimore. How some of the diseased cells were retrieved from her body without her knowing. How they were cultivated in a lab and have led to medical breakthroughs.
Now the family was finally able to honor his mother with the headstone in her beloved Clover, where she’d rested for decades in an unmarked grave.
“She has done so much for us, her children, everyone else, in so many ways,” Lawrence Lacks said.
For decades, Henrietta Lacks was known in the medical and research community as “HeLa,” the name given to the first human cell line that allowed doctors to see how cells work. Since then, HeLa cells have been used to help find the vaccine for polio and treatments for leukemia, hemophilia and Parkinson’s disease.
Her cells continue to multiply in labs around the globe. HeLa has become a bedrock of medical research. But she was more than that.
Before Saturday’s memorial at the grave site, family, doctors and politicians gathered at Henrietta Lacks’ church, St. Matthew Baptist, to pay tribute to the science, but also to “Hennie,” as she was known here.
She was a friend who had a meal on the stove when people stopped by, and a caring wife and mother who moved her family from Virginia tobacco fields to Baltimore in the 1940s to give them a better life.
Two of her three sons and their children and grandchildren filled the front row and choir box of a packed church. They wore ribbons or shirts that were fire-engine red, the color Hennie used to paint her nails.
David Kroll, chairman of the department of pharmaceutical sciences at North Carolina Central University in Durham, said he wrote a thesis based on her cells.
“I want to talk to the young people in the family now. She is world famous. She is world famous!” he said as many in the crowd rose in applause.
“We talk about Obama, we talk about Franklin Roosevelt, but I’d put Henrietta Lacks up there with any of them.”
Another researcher, (Former Milwaukee resident) Dr. Roland Pattillo with the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, said that in the 1960s, he’d worked with Dr. George Gey at then-Johns Hopkins Hospital. Gey grew the cells and created the HeLa cell line, looking to find a cure for cancer.
In 1996, when few had heard of Henrietta Lacks, Pattillo began holding conferences in her honor. The recent release of a book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” has catapulted her name into the spotlight.
Pattillo and his wife (Patricia Pattillo - publisher of MCJ) gave the money to Morehouse to fund Lacks’ headstone. The family gathered money to buy a headstone for their sister, Elsie, who died in 1955, and that stone was dedicated Saturday along with her mother’s.
Patillo quieted the church by recalling another of Henrietta’s daughters, Deborah, who died last year. Deborah had worked with the author of “Immortal Life” to bring long-overdue recognition to her mother. She wanted the family to move beyond years of bewilderment and anger.
Until the 1970s, when researchers contacted them for blood samples in their attempt to figure out why HeLa cells were unique, no one in Henrietta Lacks’ family knew that doctors had taken her cells in 1951 or what scientists were doing with them.
Her children struggled over the years, dealing with the loss of their mom and then boggled by the news of the cells’ existence and that biomedical companies were making millions by growing and selling them.
Many in the family still don’t have health insurance.
Saturday was about closure, about healing, about moving on. Family members bubbled with the news that Oprah Winfrey plans to team up with HBO to produce a movie about their Hennie.
Lawrence Lacks, who for years would not talk about his mother, said he’s finally able to open up a bit about her. He wants to start a foundation to help cancer patients.
He knew how painful her death was. He remembers watching her struggle through the radiation treatments, which turned her honey-brown skin black around her stomach.
But now, he said, he believes it was all part of God’s plan.