Dr. Roland Pattillo’s work led to Henrietta Lacks’ “immortality”
Without Roland Anthony Pattillo, the story of Henrietta Lacks may never have been told.
Dr. Pattillo grew up in Louisiana in the 1930s in an entrenched culture of segregation, yet he nurtured the improbable dream to young men of color in the Deep South at that time of one day becoming a doctor.
Despite the odds, however, young Roland earned his medical degree from the Saint Louis University School of Medicine in 1959 and embarked upon the career he had dreamed about since childhood.
After medical school, Dr. Pattillo completed his fellowship training at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School. At Johns Hopkins, Dr. Pattillo trained with George Gey, MD, who in 1951 cultured the first immortalized cell line from a tissue sample biopsied during the treatment of Henrietta Lacks, a cervical cancer patient – although the culture was created without her permission. This story is chronicled in the best-selling book and recent film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
The immortal cells – the oldest and most commonly used human cell line (known as HeLa cells), have contributed to invaluable scientific progress in many fields, notably testing the first polio vaccine in the 1950s to expedite its readiness for human clinical trials.
As a physician-scientist, Dr. Pattillo led the team responsible for developing a new cell line from cervical tissue that was used to develop a vaccine for the Human Papilloma Virus, which is routinely used to prevent the cervical cancer that claimed the life of Henrietta Lacks.
Beyond the clinic and the laboratory, Dr. Pattillo befriended the Lacks family when he learned that they were unaware of the important scientific advances being made using HeLa cells.
Due to his close interactions with the family, their questions and grief remained with him over the decades and continued to play a part in his 35-year career at MCW and 20-year career at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Underscoring his relationship with the Lacks family was Dr. Pattillo’s gift of the headstone that now adorns Henrietta’s previously unmarked grave.
He also works as a liaison between the Lacks family and the scientific and journalistic communities, including, most notably, Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
In addition, Dr. Pattillo has honored Henrietta’s legacy for the past 22 years by hosting an annual HeLa Women’s Health Symposium to educate participants on health equity, cancer prevention and other timely issues within the field of women’s health.
Dr. Pattillo retired as a practicing physician in 2013 but continues to conduct research in his lab at Morehouse School of Medicine. He has authored more than 100 peer-reviewed publications, as well as a book and numerous book chapters.
His contributions to science and medicine have been recognized by many prestigious awards, including the National Institutes of Health’s Pioneer Award.
The Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) is pleased to highlight Dr. Pattillo as the first in a series honoring individuals who have made distinguished contributions to improve health in our communities. Together, we honor the past as we advance the future.