When Roland Anthony Pattillo received a doctor’s play kit as a gift from his parents at the tender age of seven it was a decisive moment for him; he knew that he wanted to become a physician.
And, though he proclaims that there was no profound life event prompting his desire to become a doctor, both his career and research have had profound effects on the medical community throughout the United States and the world.
Dr. Pattillo said that his father only had a modest education, making his desire to become a doctor all the more unlikely because his family could not afford to send him to medical school.
His father, who attended Tuskegee Institute, had worked his way through school by taking on student jobs—one of which was cleaning up George Washington Carver’s room! Ultimately, his father became an ironworker and spent his career working on the Missouri Pacific Railroad line.
During the time that Dr. Pattillo was growing up, segregation was everywhere and, with the possibility of becoming a doctor more of a dream then a reality; he adjusted his plans and set his sights on studying science to become a teacher.
As luck and life would have it though, by the time he graduated from Xavier University of New Orleans with a pre-med degree, Dr. Pattillo was able to attend medical school.
Because African Americans could not attend the medical school in New Orleans, the State provided him with a scholarship to attend medical school elsewhere.
“Even though I wanted to become a doctor, with six children in the family and my dad working on the railroad, it was unlikely that I would achieve my dream of becoming a doctor,” said Dr. Pattillo.
“But segregation ended up playing in my favor. I received a scholarship to attend medical school anywhere I could get admitted.”
The St. Louis University Medical School accepted him, and Dr. Pattillo was on his way to not only achieving his life-long dream, but he was headed on his journey to become one of the nation’s most prestigious physicians, professors and researchers.
Throughout medical school, Dr. Pattillo supplemented his scholarship by working several jobs—during the summers and at night.
“It was not easy, but I did what was necessary. Nothing was handed to me. I worked hard, studied hard, and it paid off,” he said.
And, indeed, it did pay off. During his tenure in medical school and throughout his residency, Dr. Pattillo studied under some of the most world-renowned doctors and researchers in the country.
First, while at the University of St. Louis School of Medicine, he had the great fortune of studying under Dr. Edward Adelbert Doisy, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine in 1943 for his foremost research related to estrogen and Vitamin K.
In addition, Dr. Pattillo was the only African American to study under Dr. George Gey at Johns Hopkins University.
Gey was the researcher who was able to grow cells taken during a biopsy when Henrietta Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer. These cultured cells gave rise to the HeLa cell line, prompting Rebecca Skloot to pen “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a New York Times bestseller, which chronicles the conflict of the politics, ethics, racism and research surrounding the Lacks’ Family and death of Henrietta Lacks.
“Throughout my career—even during pre-medicine—my work and research has been driven by my early exposure to Henrietta Lacks and the enormous suffering that this 31 year old wife and mother had to endure.
“I was very much affected by the family’s suffering. I shared their pain and it made me want to work in medicine to become a part of research to identify new and better ways of doing things,” he said.
“Because Henrietta Lacks’ cells would grow and could be kept alive for scientists to use, we no longer had to use people as guinea pigs. Some of those early tests on humans cost a lot of lives, so I wanted to find ways to help alleviate human suffering in the name of science and research,” said Dr. Pattillo. Dr.
Pattillo’s interest in and compassion for the Lacks family led him to become well acquainted with them. He also purchased a headstone for Henrietta’s previously unmarked grave. He remains protective of the family and informally vets anyone that attempts to connect with them. In fact, only after several phone conversations with Skloot, did he facilitate an introduction that led to her interviewing the Lacks family and writing the book. “The family has endured much pain and suffering, as well as individuals attempting to prey on their misfortune and pain. Most of the family members—to this day—don’t even have health insurance, yet the medical community has benefited tremendously from the use of Henrietta’s cells,” said Dr. Pattillo. Ultimately Dr. Pattillo became a practicing physician and Professor of Gynecology, first at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and after 35 years, he moved the Reproductive tract cell bank to Morehouse School of Medicine continuing the original cell culture lines from Johns Hopkins University and the Medical College of Wisconsin. These will continue to be used in Reproductive Biology at this institution and worldwide.
Dr. Pattillo served as OB/GYN interim Chair from 1996 to 1998 at Morehouse School of Medicine. During that time, the residency program was established. He was awarded the Medallion of the International Trophoblast Society for his stem cell research in 2003. He also began hosting a women’s health conference at Morehouse School of Medicine, in honor of Lacks and invited members of the Lacks family to Atlanta to speak. The HeLa Conference recently celebrated its 18th year in September 2013.
Certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Gynecologic Oncology, Dr. Pattillo has authored more than 100 peer- reviewed journal publications, one book, and many book chapters. He began clinical and scientific studies in 1964 with the establishment of in-vitro cell models possessing characteristic biomarkers, which were used in multiple experimental designs for assessment of endocrine function, chemotherapy, radiation therapy sensitivity, and differentiation. The primary objective of this research was achieved in 1966 with the first identification of the Trophoblast Stem Cell and the establishment of the first human hormone synthesizing cell system to be maintained in continuous cultivation. The cell systems have been shared with scientists worldwide and the ovarian system was used to develop a new treatment for ovarian cancer.
Dr. Pattillo recently retired from his practice as a physician after more than 55 years. During Morehouse School of Medicine’s recent graduation ceremonies, he received the prestigious Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award, which is bestowed on one professor and one student each year. He plans to continue his research at Morehouse School of Medicine, where he has worked for the past 18 years. Among his many awards, he also recently received the Pioneer Award from the National Institute of Health’s Contractor on Frontiers in Stem Cell Research.
While he has retired as a practicing physician, Dr. Pattillo has no plans to retire his research and numerous contributions to medicine.
“I will continue my work in the research laboratory and I will continue to host the HeLa Conferences. As a matter of fact, the next one is scheduled for September 13th,” he said. “I won’t be doing surgery, but I will continue to do what stimulates me. I tried to improve treatments for those afflicted by disease. I tried to give them hope to continue with the passion and fire to put one foot in front of the other. I am grateful for my own health and I have had the good fortune to be a part of doing what we as physicians are supposed to do, not what we say we do,” said Dr. Pattillo.