WSU Common Reading Welcomes Lacks Family for Jan. 23 Discussion of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

PULLMAN, Wash.—Washington State University’s Common Reading Program will host a moderated discussion with David “Sonny” Lacks and Jeri Lacks-Whye Wed. Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. in Beasley Coliseum. They are the son and granddaughter of the woman who is the subject of “This Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” this year’s Common Reading book for freshmen. Her cells have been used over the past 60-plus years in countless scientific pursuits worldwide.

The event marks the sixth annual Common Reading Invited Lecture for the popular program. It is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow on the Beasley Concourse.

“We are delighted to welcome the Lacks family to give a more personal insight into the life of Henrietta and her lasting impact,” says Karen Weathermon, co-director of the Common Reading Program. “The book, written and published by Rebecca Skloot in 2010, raises topics that have inspired countless discussions among students and faculty here at WSU, both in first-year classes and in programming beyond them. We are excited to learn more about her from her son and his daughter.”

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” describes how cells were taken without permission from the main character, who died at 31 of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951.  Those cells became the first immortal cell line when they reproduced successfully and rapidly in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Named “HeLa” cells—derived from the first two letters of her names—they continued to divide and multiply, and went on to be used in the development of vaccines, cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization, and were sent on space missions to test who cells react to zero gravity.

That HeLa cells came from Henrietta Lacks wasn’t made public until the 1970s. Her family was approached about giving their cells for research, which they did, also without their consent. They went on to discover that vials of Henrietta’s cells had become the first human biological materials ever bought and sold as part of a multi-billion-dollar industry. In her book, Skloot explores the family’s story. Some profits from the book go to a foundation to support families and victims of medical ethics violations. The Lacks family has never benefited from the commercialization of HeLa cells.

David “Sonny” Lacks has visited university campuses and libraries across the country talking to audiences about his mother’s important contributions to science. By sharing what it was like to find out about her immortal cells, he brings a personal touch to big issues such as medical experimentation on African Americans, bioethics, legal battles over informed consent and whether we control what comes from our bodies and control any profits. He provides a first-person perspective on the collision between ethics, race, and the commercialization of human tissue, and how the experience changed the Lacks family forever.

Jeri Lacks-Whye has traveled with her father on dozens of visits, adding her own perspective on the legacy of her grandmother, the family, and HeLa cells. She works for the judiciary system in Baltimore in the domestic violence unit. She is one of the Lacks family members who will be a consultant in the much-anticipated HBO movie produced by Oprah Winfrey and Allan Ball based on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

For additional information about the WSU Common Reading and the Lacks visit on Jan. 23, visit the website at

CONTACT: Karen Weathermon, Co-Director, WSU Common Reading Program, 509-335-5488,

MEDIA: Beverly Makhani, Director of Communications, University College at WSU, 509-335-6679, Makhani@wsu.edu1-10-13