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Wonder Woman

The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science

Photo courtesy the Lacks family
Henrietta Lacks

By Van Smith | Posted 4/17/2002

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In Deborah Lacks-Pullum's estimation, her parent's middle-class aspirations in coming to Baltimore were realized. "We weren't poor," she says. "We were living comfortably."

Henrietta held down the home on New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turner Station while her husband, David, earned decent wages at the shipyard. Folks from Clover, in town to start jobs on the Point, would stay over until they could find their own housing. Before he came to Baltimore, David Lacks "was the hardest working man in Clover, working 15 acres by himself," Lacks-Pullum says. Once here, he and Henrietta enjoyed a sterling reputation in the community as gracious, generous people.

"The door was always open for new arrivals from Clover," says Barbara Wyche, a Morgan State lecturer who has dedicated much time and effort to studying Henrietta Lacks. The link to the family's Virginia roots stayed strong, Wyche says--"Henrietta went home every summer and farmed." It's still strong: Deborah Lacks-Pullum frequently visits relatives in Clover.

After Henrietta died, David Lacks raised the children--Lawrence, Elsie (who died at the age of 15, a few years after Henrietta passed away), David Jr., Deborah, and Zakariyya--by himself, just as Henrietta's grandfather had done after his wife died. They remained a happy family, though they missed their mother.

The news that Henrietta's cells had been taken and used for research without their knowledge, though, cast a cloud over the family. David Lacks, Henrietta's husband, doesn't even like to talk about it. "He's tired of talking--it's the same thing, over and over," she says. By default, Lacks-Pullum has become the family spokesperson when it comes to Henrietta--and she herself is getting weary. "I'm just tired of my family getting walked over," she says. "It hurts."

Recognition has been slow in coming, but the future holds some promise. Rebecca Skloot, a Pittsburgh-based science writer, has spent the last three years researching and writing a comprehensive book, HeLa: The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, that's due to be published by Times Books next year. And Charlene Gilbert, a Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker, is hard at work on a documentary titled Colored Bodies: Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells.

Back in Clover, Gary Lacks is roaming the Old Home House, trying to avoid the holes in the floorboards. He's explaining how the house and the family burial ground have fallen into disrepair. "There's no one to keep it up," he says. "People only think about it when they come up here to bury someone, then they forget about it until the next time. They let the cows come in, and the cows keep it clean, keep the bushes down."

It wouldn't take much money to save the Old Home House, he says, and even less to keep up the cemetery, find Henrietta's grave, give it a headstone. But people don't have much money in Lacks Town. He hopes that with the attention generated by the book and the film--and with all the millions of dollars at Johns Hopkins' disposal--resources will become available to give his aunt's final resting place the honor it deserves. He's hopeful, but he isn't holding his breath.

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