Mon. May 16th, 2022

Two relatives of Henrietta Lacks, Shirley Lacks and Veronica Robinson, will speak on Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. in Asplundh Concert Hall on Henrietta Lacks’ story and its connections to racial and gender equity and medical ethics. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets must be reserved at the box office on the ground floor of Sykes Student Union or online at wcupatix.com.

Henrietta Lacks was a black tobacco farmer in Virginia who was treated for cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in 1951 at the age of 31. Sadly, her cancer was terminal, but her tumor cells, taken by a doctor without her knowledge, gave rise to the first “immortal” human cell line, which continues to this day. Human cell lines are continuously multiplying groups of cells maintained in labs and used by scientists to study the operations of human cells and test possible treatments for diseases. Henrietta Lacks’ cells, known to researchers as “HeLa cells,” were used in the development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in most other significant medical research conducted since the cell line was established. However, the HeLa cells were taken without consent, and for over 20 years Henrietta Lacks’ family was not even aware her cells were being grown by scientists and used in research. Because of this, the story of Henrietta Lacks serves a powerful catalyst for dialogue on medical ethics, as well as racial and gender issues in the United States.

Bringing an opportunity for this dialogue to our campus are Shirley Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ daughter-in-law, and Veronica Robinson, Henrietta Lacks’ great granddaughter, who acts as the family’s representative on the National Institutes of Health panel which now reviews applications from researchers who wish to use HeLa cells. When asked why these individuals’ visit is valuable to our community, Professor Bill Lalicker, the main organizer of the event, replied, “Shirley Lacks and Veronica Robinson are our living link to the woman whose DNA has a place in saving millions of lives. They have a special perspective, and their riveting insights have been well received on a number of major university campuses, with WCU now fortunate to share in the discussion.” Shirley Lacks and Veronica Robinson will reserve part of Wednesday’s event as a question and answer time, during which audience members will be invited to ask any questions they would like. The two speakers will also be available after the event to sign copies of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the New York Times bestseller by Rebecca Skloot.

Over 300 students have recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for various classes as part of the Frederick Douglass Institute’s (FDI) One Book WCU Project. The goal of this project, in the words of Lalicker, who also serves on the FDI Board of Directors, is to “bring the campus and community together to focus on those Douglass principles of social justice” through a book. When asked why “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was chosen as the book for the inaugural year of the FDI One Book WCU Project, Lalicker stated, “People were most excited about the complex set of issues the book raises, making it suitable for many courses…plus, it’s a well researched nonfiction book: science writing with a bit of mystery-novel flavor—and an excellent read.”

Shirley Lacks and Veronica Robinson’s visit provides an opportunity for both those who have been part of the project and those who have not to explore the complex issues surrounding Henrietta Lacks’ story together.

The FDI One Book WCU Project and Shirley Lacks and Veronica Robinson’s visit are supported by the Office of the President, the Office of Social Equity, the College of Health Sciences, the College of Business and Public Management, the College of Arts and Humanities, SSI Incorporated and the Division of Undergraduate Studies and Student Support Services.

Abbey Bigler is a fourth-year English major with minors in business and technical writing, communication studies, and biology. She can be reached at AB842693@wcupa.edu.

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