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'The Immortal Life' of a Family

November 21, 2011

The One Book One Northwestern community reading program hosted a conversation Nov. 17 with David Lacks, the son of the subject of this year’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The audience in a packed Harris Hall auditorium listened as Lacks discussed how his life has been impacted by author Rebecca Skloot’s research and the book’s subsequent publication.

Moderated by Evonda Thomas, director of the Evanston Health Department, the interview delved into how Lacks came to learn more about his mother as a result of the process. Lacks was four years old when his mother died, and he said Skloot’s research brought him and his siblings “closer to [their] mother.”

Henrietta Lacks’ legacy stems from the creation of the HeLa cell line from cancerous cell samples taken without her knowledge before her early death. The cells have aided scientists with research into cancer, AIDS, gene mapping and many other fields.

“She was a giving person,” Lacks said of his mother. “Many beneficial things have come from her cells. I know she would appreciate this being a giving situation.”

Thomas asked a variety of questions before turning it over to the audience, many of whom were curious about the Lacks’ family dynamic. Lacks, whose daughter Jeri joined him onstage and contributed to the discussion, told the audience how much it meant to him that people were interested in the story.

“It’s good that people want to know about it,” he said. “The story is out there. There’s a sense of relief.”

Skloot also attended the event and answered questions from the audience. Lacks praised Skloot for her work on the book, thanking her for telling his mother’s story.

“Rebecca did her research,” Lacks said. “She wrote the story the way it needed to be written, with both the family and scientific elements.”

One Book One Northwestern hosts events to foster discussion among students and faculty regarding each year’s selected book. The program recently launched a Lacks-themed art project called “The Immortal Art Project,” which is a 40-foot mural featuring the thumbprints of Northwestern students. HeLa cells are unique to Henrietta Lacks, and the mural is a reminder that thumbprints are different for every individual.

Additionally, One Book One Northwestern sought to increase community involvement in the program by accepting proposals from people with Chicago-related book nominations for the 2012-2013 selection.

The program will invite Rebecca Skloot back to deliver a keynote address on Jan. 26.

Topics: Campus Life