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IU Northwest welcomes family of Henrietta Lacks, subject of upcoming film starring Oprah Winfrey, on March 22

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks raises discussions of ethics, race in scientific discovery

Monday Mar 06, 2017

In 1951, a poor, black tobacco farmer by the name of Henrietta Lacks lay in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital when scientists took her cells without her knowledge. Those cells, now known the world over, became a powerful force in medicine, responsible for the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping and more.

The cells were the first to survive and continue to grow in a lab, a breakthrough for scientists who had tried and failed for many years to do so. Because of this regenerative property, her cells were bought and sold by the billions for research projects around the world —and even in space— yet Lacks remained nearly unknown. Her family, which did not learn about the cells until the 1970s when researchers wanted to continue their research on her children, never benefitted from the profit of her cells, which are still in use and for sale today.

Author Rebecca Skloot chronicled the story in her 2010 New York Times best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, chosen as the common read for the 2016-17 academic year by Indiana University Northwest.

The book has prompted endless discussions in classrooms and at university events throughout the year for its exploration of such topics as the collision between race, ethics and medicine; the history of experimentation on African Americans; bioethics; and the Lacks family’s search for the truth. The story even caught the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who co-produces and stars in an upcoming HBO film, to be released this spring.

The IU Northwest campus and Northwest Indiana region will have a unique opportunity beginning at 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 22, to have a discussion with two descendants of Henrietta Lacks. In the signature event that will conclude the year’s reading initiative, the campus will welcome Lacks’ daughter-in-law, Shirley Lacks, and great-granddaughter, Veronica Robinson, to the Savannah Center, where they will also answer audience questions and sign copies of the book. The event is free and open to the public. This is the first time Lacks family members have visited Northwest Indiana.

Daughter-in-law, great-granddaughter put a face to Henrietta’s legacy

Shirley Lacks is Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, and best friend of Henrietta's deceased daughter Deborah, a prominent figure in the book.  Since retiring from the banking industry, Shirley dedicates much of her time traveling around the country, keeping Henrietta’s legacy alive.  Shirley has three children and five grandchildren.

Veronica Robinson is Henrietta Lacks’ great granddaughter. Inspired by Henrietta’s story, she is currently studying to become a Registered Nurse at Baltimore City Community College. She represents the Lacks family on the National Institute of Health’s panel that reviews applications to conduct research using the HeLa genome. Veronica is also a mentor at Johns Hopkins for Dunbar Scholars and a very active member of the Lacks Family Foundation.

During their March 22 presentation and question-answer session, Shirley and Veronica will share their perspectives of learning about Henrietta’s cells and their significance decades after scientists took them and began using them to change the face of medicine.

In 2013, the family partnered with the National Institutes of Health to discuss options for protecting the family without hindering future research. Now, 62 years after the fact, the family is finally able to participate and make decisions regarding their matriarch, thus actively continuing her legacy and contributing to scientific advancement.

Members of the family have visited more than 100 communities and campuses and offered their first-person accounts of how ethics, race and the commercialization of their matriarch’s cells have collided. They discuss how the experience changed the Lacks family over generations and how they remain involved today.

For more information about the One Book … One Campus … One Community … Reading Initiative, the free March 22 event, and supplemental resources, visit

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