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A mother’s world-changing legacy remembered at Clarkson

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POTSDAM — Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who died of cancer in 1951, was responsible for some of the most important advances in medicine in the 20th century. Her family would not learn of her contributions to the world for decades.

Her son David “Sonny” Lacks and grandson Ron Lacks, David’s nephew, spoke at Clarkson University’s annual convocation ceremony Sunday to mark the beginning of a new academic year.

The Lacks family was launched into prominence in 2010 by Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which told the story of how a sample of Henrietta’s cancer cells was taken without her knowledge or consent when she went to Johns Hopkins hospital for treatment. Unlike most cells, which die out quickly, hers were unique.

For reasons nobody can fully explain, they kept growing and reproducing, and continue to do so. Today, there are trillions of her cancer cells, called “HeLa” cells, in laboratories around the world. Research made possible because of her cells led to the creation of the polio vaccine, and they continue to be used in AIDS and cancer research.

After the students were seated and the faculty filed into Clarkson’s Cheel Arena, David and Ron Lacks began to take questions about how Henrietta’s legacy and Skloot’s book affected their own lives.

David Lacks told the gathered students that he never knew his mother. He was only 4 when she died. His family did not know how her cells had been used until the 1970s. The family’s reaction to the news, he recounted, was mixed.

“It was a whole range of emotions that the family went through before we started to accept what was going on,” Ron Lacks told the crowd of students and faculty.

The thought that pieces of Henrietta’s body were being experimented on without permission, acknowledgement or compensation was troubling.

“At least they could let us know what they’re doing,” David said.

By now, the family has come to accept their mother’s legacy. They say she would be proud of what her cells were able to accomplish.

“Without experiment you won’t get cures for certain diseases,” David Lacks said.

The thought that some pharmaceutical companies have used HeLa cells to launch multimillion-dollar products does bother him, he said, but overall, he believes the benefits outweigh the frustrations.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a pocket full of money right now,” he told students, “but I’m glad her cells were able to change the world.”

Despite the enormous impact HeLa cells have had on medicine, David Lacks still does not have health insurance. He works part time driving tractor-trailers in his hometown of Baltimore, Md.

David Lacks is still learning more about the remarkable life, death and legacy of a woman he never knew, as the rest of the world finally begins to recognize her importance to the medical community.

“It’s a good thing, because it’s worldwide now,” he said. “Recognition is getting there.

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