Education Keynote

The Lacks Family

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

2021 Keynote Speaker

The Lacks family has enthralled audiences across the country by talking about their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Henrietta Lacks, and her transcendentally important contributions to science.

Henrietta Lacks was a Black tobacco farmer whose cells, taken without her knowledge or consent in 1951, went on to become the first immortal human cells ever grown in the laboratory. Those cells, dubbed HeLa, became one of the most important tools in modern medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Though Henrietta died in 1951, her cells—alive and growing to this day—are still the most widely used in the world.

Henrietta’s family didn’t learn that the cells existed until the 1970s, when scientists wanted to do research on her children—Lawrence, David “Sonny” Jr., Deborah, and Zakariyya—to learn more about the remarkable “immortality” of Henrietta’s cell line. Her children were then used in research without their consent.

In August 2013, 62 years after Henrietta’s death, the Lacks family reached an historic and unprecedented agreement with the National Institutes of Health. After a German lab posted the full HeLa genome online for anyone to see, Henrietta’s descendants came together with the NIH to consider options for protecting the family’s privacy without hindering medical and scientific advancement. The result is the groundbreaking HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement.

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—a celebration of Henrietta’s life and legacy. They have visited hundreds of communities and campuses, where their appearances give audiences an unforgettable first-person perspective on the collision between ethics, race, and the commercialization of human tissue, and how their experiences have impacted the Lacks family from generation to generation.

Be sure to join us for this year's 65th Annual Meeting, to be a part of the Lacks Family's keynote address on Monday, August 7, 2023.

Join Us For A Book Panel Discussion: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

For many years the name Henrietta Lacks was unknown, but thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s phenomenal and enduring bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a growing number of people, from medical researchers to book groups to high school students, are eager to learn more about her. Henrietta’s descendants speak candidly and poignantly about the Lacks family’s experiences and the matriarch whose cancerous cell tissue has become, since her death in 1951, one of the most important medical research tools ever discovered.

Purchase the book today, at your preferred book store, dive into this incredible story, and then be sure to join us at AM65 for a book discussion on Wednesday, August 9th.

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