- Cullman, Alabama

October 1, 2012

David ‘Sonny’ Lacks discusses impact and legacy of Henrietta Lacks’ life during Wallace State’s Common Read event

WSCC Media Relations

HANCEVILLE — David “Sonny” Lacks considers his mother’s legacy to be one as a healer. “She gave something to the world and it helped mankind. Her legacy is unique because the HeLa cell is the only one that can live outside the body,” Lacks said. “She’s truly a hero after death.”

Wallace State Community College was privileged to host David “Sonny” Lacks, the son of Henrietta Lacks, and Veronica Spencer, a granddaughter of Henrietta, last week in conjunction with its Common Read selection “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a New York Times bestseller by Rebecca Skloot. Sonny Lacks and Spencer participated in a question and answer session at the Betty Leeth Haynes Theatre in front of more than 1,000 people in attendance.

Henrietta Lacks was an impoverished tobacco farmer from Virginia who was diagnosed with cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Her cells, taken without her knowledge while undergoing treatment, are the first immortal human cells ever grown in the laboratory. Though Henrietta Lacks dies in 1951 at age 31, HeLa cells, as her cells are now known, have become one of the most important tools in modern medicine. They were vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and other treatments, and remain the most widely used cell line in the world today.

Sonny Lacks and Spencer discussed for approximately an hour the life, legacy and impact that Henrietta’s cells have had on modern medicine and the ethical and moral issues raised after Henrietta’s cells were utilized without the family’s consent or knowledge.

“Henrietta’s cells have helped biotech companies make millions of dollars yet her family has never benefited from the commercialization of these HeLa cells,” said Dr. Vicki Hawsey, Wallace State President. “Despite what the Lacks family has endured they are proud to honor the memory of Henrietta and her unparalleled contributions to science.  Their message is positive, optimistic, and above all celebrates Henrietta’s life and legacy.”

Sonny Lacks said he was four years old when his mother died, so he has vague memories of her life. However, he always knew Henrietta was a giver in life because it was a common trend for her to cook spaghetti for a full house of family and friends.

“She was always a giving and loving person,” Sonny Lacks said. “I think she would have been really pleased to help the whole world (with her cells). Who wouldn’t want to help a lot of people?”

Henrietta’s cells were used in research without the family’s consent, yet the Lacks family doesn’t begrudge the medical professionals who utilized the cells to improve others’ lives.

“We feel compensation from the mere fact that Henrietta’s cells have done so much for research and for the world,” Spencer said.

During the presentation, Sonny Lacks and Spencer both reiterated multiple times about the tight bond the Lacks family exhibits, a unity that has remained strong before and after the book was published in 2010.

“Her (Henrietta) cells are the gift that truly keeps on giving and lights up the whole world. Her legacy keeps our family close and makes sure we take care of each other,” said Spencer, adding that it has made the black and white sides of the Lacks family become closer knit.

After the discussion, Sonny and Spencer both participated in a book signing for students and employees.

“We were so excited to have Mr. Lacks and Ms. Spencer make the effort to join us on campus. They were really appreciated and it was apparent how sincere everyone was in listening to what they had to say. I thought both speakers were personable and they did a great job helping us relate to the story, giving us a first-person perspective of what it’s like to be in their family,” said Sally Warren, English Instructor and chair of the Common Read Committee. “We were thrilled to see such a great turnout. We noticed there were students from a variety of disciplines on campus, and the nursing department even waited to get a picture with them after the book signing.”

Warren added that the selection of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” as this year’s Common Read was also inspired by the author’s journey from a community college student to a bestselling author.

Wallace State’s Common Read began in 2009, with the purpose to provide a common academic experience for all first-year students and to enhance the academic atmosphere of the entire institution by focusing on an annual initiative related to literature. The program’s main goal is for participants to have fun and enjoy a great book, but it also encourages reading among students, creates a sense of community on campus, promotes discussion, provides a shared intellectual experience and encourages cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Wallace State was a League for Innovation’s 2011 Innovation of the Year Award winner for its Common Read initiative. Previous Common Read books were “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” by John Boyne and Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie.”