The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Characters

Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Characters

  • Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cancerous cervical cells gave birth to the immortal line of HeLa cells.
  • Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
  • Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's second daughter, who aided Skloot in her research.
  • George Gey, the scientist who successfully grew Henrietta's cells in the lab, creating the HeLa line of cells.
  • Day Lacks, Henrietta's husband.
  • Lawrence, Henrietta's oldest son, a Vietnam War veteran and shop owner.
  • Elsie Lacks, Henrietta's oldest daughter, born epileptic and mentally handicapped.
  • Sonny Lacks, Henrietta's second son, who underwent a quintuple bypass late in life.
  • Joe Lacks, who converted to Islam in prison and changed his name Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman. 


Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920, the eighth of ten children. Henrietta's mother died in 1924, when Henrietta was just four. Her father moved the family to Clover, Virginia and split them up between a bunch of relatives. Henrietta went to live with Tommy Lacks, his grandfather, in a four-room cabin, which they affectionately called "home-house." Henrietta shared a bed with her cousin David "Day" Lacks, whom she married. She had five children: Lawrence, Lucile a.k.a. Elsie, David a.k.a. Sonny, Deborah, and Joe a.k.a. Zakariyya. Shortly after Deborah's birth, Henrietta complained of pain in her womb. Her family urged her to see a doctor, but she didn't heed their advice. Henrietta hated doctors and only visited them as a last resort. After Joe was born, Henrietta felt a lump next to her cervix. It was cancer. Later, scientists learned that her cancer was caused by the HPV virus. Her doctors took samples of healthy and cancerous cervical tissue to study. These samples gave birth to the HeLa line of immortal cells. Henrietta never gave consent for the samples to be collected, and she died without learning of their existence.

Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot is a freelance science writer and editor best known for this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot first became interested in the HeLa line of cells in high school, when she enrolled in a biology class at Portland Community College to fulfill her science requirements. Years later, while studying toward her MFA in Nonfiction writing, Skloot began research for a book about Henrietta and HeLa cells. She spent the next ten years gathering information, conducting interviews with Henrietta's family and striking up a friendship with Henrietta's daughter Deborah. In 2010, the book was published to great acclaim and became a big bestseller.

Deborah Lacks

Deborah Lacks is Henrietta's second daughter. Following her mother's death, Deborah lived with her father and siblings under Ethel and Galen's care. Ethel tortured Deborah, and Galen sexually abused her, once even punching her in the face when he saw her with another boy. After Lawrence took the children away from Ethel, Deborah grew angry about the abuse and started fighting back against her abusers, taking no glib from men. Deborah got pregnant at sixteen, but this complication didn't stop her from getting her high school diploma. A few years later, she married her boyfriend Cheetah and had a second child. Unfortunately, Cheetah became addicted to drugs and started abusing Deborah. Deborah fought right back, once even planning to kill Cheetah. Instead, she divorced him and took the children, working two jobs to support her family. Deborah was the first Lacks Skloot was able to reach. After their initial phone conversation, however, Deborah got spooked and refused to grant her more interviews for another year. Eventually, Deborah opened up again, giving Skloot permission to write her book on two conditions. First, she had to get Henrietta's name right. Second, she had to tell Elsie's story. From then on, Deborah was involved in Skloot's research, sometimes too involved. She found the research stressful, and she suffered many stress-related illnesses, including hives and very erratic behavior. She was alternately forthcoming and suspicious of Skloot. She accompanied Skloot on the trip to Crownville to learn about Elsie's life. This upset Deborah, and she broke out into hives before picking a fight with Skloot, throwing the journalist against a wall. A visit to her cousin Gary the Disciple calmed Deborah down. Later in life, the stress abated. Deborah moved into an assisted living facility and worked full-time for her daughter. She died just days after Skloot called to inform her that the book was finished.

David "Day" Lacks

Henrietta's cousin David was always called Day. Day shared a room—and a bed—with Henrietta at Tommy Lacks's home-house. Eventually, Day and Henrietta started fooling around. Their first child, Lawrence, was born when Henrietta was just fourteen. Together, they had five children. Day worked two or more jobs to support his family. When Henrietta was diagnosed, he couldn't take any time off work to pick her up from her daily radiation treatments. Like all the Lackses, he believed Henrietta's doctors were trying to cure her, not just ease the pain. After her death, he felt compelled by a doctor to sign a form giving consent for a partial autopsy, in which doctors harvested cells from her corpse. Day harbored resentment about this until his death. He felt that doctors had tricked him into signing away his and Henrietta's rights. Day was especially irritated about other people making a profit off of the HeLa cells. He died before Skloot finished the book.

Lawrence Lacks

Lawrence is Henrietta's oldest child, born when she was just fourteen years old. As the eldest child, Lawrence felt responsible for his younger siblings, and after his mother's death in 1951 he dropped out of school to help take care of the kids. At sixteen, he obtained a voter registration card that said he was eighteen, which got him into pool halls—but also got him drafted. While Lawrence was off fighting in the Vietnam War, Henrietta's cousin Ethel and Ethel's husband Galen moved in with Day to help care for the children. When he returned from the war, he moved into his own house, and he didn't learn about Ethel's abuse until years later. After marrying, he and his wife Bobbette took care of his younger siblings. Lawrence owned a store, where his family members would later hand out a number of fliers about the injustice of doctors stealing Henrietta's cells. Lawrence was angry about people other than the Lackses making a profit off the HeLa cells. Eventually, though, he grew tired of talking about the cells.

Lucile "Elsie" Lacks

Elsie Lacks was born epileptic and mentally handicapped. Henrietta and Day raised her for as long as they could, but eventually caring for Elsie became too hard, and Henrietta had her committed to a facility called...

(The entire section is 2865 words.)