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Honoring Henrietta Lacks

Jermaine Jackson stands in front of a billboard promoting the exhibit he curated on his great-aunt Henrietta Lacks that was featured at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.
Great-nephew spotlights her legacy to science and medicine

Before Henrietta Lacks was the topic of a bestselling book and an HBO movie, she was the long-dead great-aunt of Kalamazooan Jermaine Jackson, whose grandmother — Lacks’ sister-in-law — used to tell him stories about her.

“The stories were odd — about her cells being all over the world and out in space even though she’s dead,” he says. “It was like science fiction or Star Trek, something bizarre, and I couldn’t comprehend what she was saying.”

But now the 47-year-old great-nephew of this Black woman has made it his mission to make sure that Lacks’ startling, yet initially secret, contribution to the health and well-being of people around the world is known.

Who was Henrietta Lacks?

On Jan. 29, 1951, Henrietta Lacks entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in her home city of Baltimore, the only hospital in the area that treated Black patients. She complained of a “knot” in her womb that proved to be a malignant cancer of the cervix. During her treatment and while she was under anesthesia, cell samples were harvested from the affected part of her body without her knowledge or permission, a common practice that was considered legal and ethical at that time.

These samples, labeled “HeLa” for the first two letters of her first and last name, were given to physician and cancer researcher George Otto Gey, who observed that the cells possessed a characteristic not previously seen in biopsies: the ability to survive more than a few hours or days in a laboratory environment. In fact, they multiplied and multiplied so often that researchers referred to them as the “immortal HeLa cell line.”

In 1954, three years after Lacks’ death on Oct. 4, 1951, at age 31, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccine. That was her first significant medical contribution to the world, but it was only the beginning.

In the 1960s, as a precursor to manned space flights, Russian scientists sent HeLa cells into orbit aboard Sputnik 6 to determine the effects of space travel on living tissue. The cells prospered at zero gravity.

In 2017, an article in the Baltimore City Paper said that HeLa cells have since been used for “research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific purposes.”

HeLa cells have been so durable and prolific that if all of these microscopic cells grown by researchers over the last 72 years were piled together, they would weigh more than 50 million metric tons. Their sale price to researchers ranges from $400 to thousands of dollars per vial.

Yet, the origin of HeLa cells was purposefully kept secret during the 1950s, when the donor was identified as “Helen Lane” because of the belief that Whites would not accept Salk’s polio vaccine if they knew it originated from a Black woman.

Even Lacks’ family did not know until 1973 — 22 years after her death — that her cells were still alive. Scientists called the relatives then, asking permission to take their blood samples in order to study their genes.

The story of HeLa cells finally emerged in force with the publication of the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, in 2010 and the subsequent release of an HBO movie by the same name, starring Oprah Winfrey, in 2017.

Honoring Henrietta Lasks

Jackson, Henrietta Lacks’ great-nephew, had heard about Lacks in the early 1980s, when he was less than 10 years old, through stories told by his grandmother Bessie Lacks. Jackson was working as a library assistant at the Kalamazoo Public Library’s Alma Powell Branch when Skloot’s exposé about the uses of Henrietta’s cells hit the market. Of the day the book arrived at the library, he says, “I sat there and I sat there and I sat there until I had read the whole book. Everything my grandmother told me came into proper perspective. It was fascinating.”

That enlightening spark would burst into flame over the next decade as Jackson considered the creation of an exhibit to honor Lacks and her contributions to society.

He was encouraged by the unveiling of a portrait of her in the Baltimore City Hall on Dec. 1, 2016. “It was a huge picture and the first picture of a Black woman there,” he says.

But he was primarily driven by his desire to tell the story of his great-aunt and the way her cells were used without the family’s knowledge or permission, which has been cited as one of the most famous examples of racist medical research practices in American history.

“So many people were uneducated or misinformed or uninformed about who she was,” says Jackson. “People, especially in science and physics, knew about her cells. They worked with them, but they didn’t know the person behind the cells and that she was a Black woman.”

For the next two years, Jackson percolated his idea for an exhibit. He spoke with relatives, including remaining members of Lacks’ immediate family, some of whom are angry that medical research entities have profited greatly from the sale of HeLa cells while the family has not.

(In 2021, the estate of Henrietta Lacks sued Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotech company, for reaping “staggering profits” by using the “stolen” HeLa cell line. The company, which estimates its annual revenue at approximately $35 billion, sought to have the case dismissed due to a statute of limitations, but it reached a settlement with the Lacks estate in August, the terms of which remain confidential.)

Gathering artwork, memorabilia, family photos, news clippings and other items related to Lacks and her cells, Jackson then contacted artists in Southwest Michigan, none of whom had any foreknowledge about Henrietta. “I sent articles and YouTube clips to them. And copies of the book and links to the movie,” he says. “They all came back to me awestruck. Like, ‘Are you kidding?’ They said this is an amazing, sad, unique story. They were so inspired that they all donated their gift, their art, their time.”

The Henrietta Lacks exhibit, consisting of artworks, memorabilia and more, debuted in 2017 in the Barnabee Gallery, a room in the Powell Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library. At first, Jackson thought this showing would be “a one-time deal,” but it was only the beginning. “I was ready to give all the pieces away, but then I just put everything into storage,” he says. Within a few months, he added more pieces to cover more history and make it more likely to become a traveling exhibit

Sharing her story

Late in 2019, Jackson approached the Kalamazoo Valley Museum about obtaining space for the exhibit there and was told there was a two- to three-year waiting list, so he turned to his pastor at Christ Temple Church and made arrangements to show the exhibit for a weekend in the church basement.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic and the ingenuity of videographer and photographer Josh Gibson, who transformed the artistic items and history into an online exhibit titled The HeLa Mobile Museum (available at whowashenrietta.wixsite.com/my-site) in which Lacks is credited with “kicking off a medical science revolution.”

Post-Covid, Jackson set up the exhibit for a weekend in the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo. “I was in awe because people came from all over to see it,” Jackson says. “Someone traveled from Pennsylvania, a Black woman who was dealing with some type of medical mistreatment. She shed tears. We talked. She left, got lunch, came back. We talked some more.”

Thanks to the influence of Earlene McMichael, marketing project manager at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, who saw the exhibit at the Radisson, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum quickly made space for the exhibit. A HeLa Story: Mother of Modern Medicine opened there on Sept. 1, 2022, and was on display until March 5, 2023.

Since then, Jackson has taken the exhibit to venues throughout Michigan: schools and colleges, churches and synagogues, hospitals and companies, especially those with employee ethics teams. It has been shown to staff and clients of the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan, whose founder had polio.

In 2022, through Jackson’s efforts, the Kalamazoo City Commission proclaimed Oct. 4, the anniversary of Lacks’ death, as Henrietta Lacks Day.

Jackson also commissioned a play, A HeLa Story, about his great-aunt and her cell line. The play was written and directed by local playwright Buddy Hannah, and it is interwoven with poems and essays by area writers William Hatcher, Aija Hodges, Charles E. Peterson Sr. and James J. Smith.

The play ran for three shows at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s Mary Jane Stryker Theater on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 2022. Lacks was played by Zaynee Hobdy, a member of Kalamazoo’s Face Off Theatre Company, and Jermaine Jackson by local actor Sid Ellis.

A HeLa Story was also presented at Loy Norrix High School in February 2023, and Jackson says the exhibit will be on display during the upcoming school year at all three high schools in the Kalamazoo Public Schools system.

Jackson describes Lacks’ contributions to the world of medicine as “a game changer, a gift to humanity.”

“It’s odd, in a sense, that she never knew the significance or the value of her life, or her death, and what her cells mean to the world at large. The discovery of immortal cells. That’s what I think about when I travel with the exhibit,” he says. “ Science can get so inhumane. I wanted to bring back the humanity, the woman behind the cells.

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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