Class of 2018 Reflects on Civil Rights, Ethics, Summer Reading

Family Members of Henrietta Lacks Present to First-Year Students and Answer Questions

HARTFORD (August 29, 2014) – First-year orientation is many things, and one of them is intellectual challenge. Trinity doesn’t wait: as the Class of 2018 figured out where they would be eating, sleeping, and going to class, the 615 entering students also sat down in the Koeppel Community Sports Center on Friday, August 29, for a conversation about their summer reading assignment, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

A true story that weaves together medical ethics, voodoo, socioeconomic disparity, hair-raising legends, civil rights, and so many other issues that the moderator, Trinity Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Sarah Raskin, called it “a book that has something for everyone,” the book details the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer and mother of five. A few months before Lacks died in 1951 at the age of 31, her doctor, without her knowledge, cut cells from her cervix. Those cells achieved what thousands, perhaps millions, of other cells had been unable to do: survive and divide. From a poor black woman, a tobacco farmer from Virginia, came one of medicine’s most valuable tools, the HeLa cell, used to develop the polio vaccine, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and many life-saving drugs. Lacks’s cells spawned a multi-billion-dollar industry in medicine, yet her family never saw a dime.

Sarah Raskin moderates a discussion with family members of Henrietta Lacks.
 Two of Lacks’s family members, her great-granddaughter Victoria Baptiste, and Lacks’s daughter-in-law, Shirley Lacks, presented a slide show detailing their family’s history to the students before sitting down with Raskin to talk about the book detailing their relative’s life.

“It opens up conversations, makes people think,” Baptiste said. “If Henrietta had been asked if they could use her cells, being the person she was, she would have said yes.”

Once the discussion ended, students exhibited a willingness to grapple with the issues presented in the book, lining up at a microphone to ask questions of the family. One student asked if the book was an accurate accounting (yes). Another asked if a white writer could accurately depict a black family’s story (Author Rebecca Skloot depended on Henrietta Lacks’ daughter Deborah for family perspective). Another thought-provoking question from a student: Did researchers and physicians keep the HeLa cells’ origins secret to avoid a backlash from the white community? The answer from Shirley Lacks: “Some white people in that era would have rather died than get a vaccine from a black woman.”

Students said they became emotionally connected to Henrietta Lacks as they learned more about her. Frustration also was a commonly cited reaction to her story. “But I had to remember the time period, and that the situation was a societal problem,” said A’Kala Chaires ’18, of Springfield, Massachusetts.

For Constantine Spyrou ’18, of Sudbury, Massachusetts, who plans to become a physician and who said he typically reads scientific journals, the book was an eye-opener. Spyrou said he read the book several times over the summer to understand more fully how each person who was portrayed reacted to the situation. “So many medical advances have come from the sacrifices and pain of others,” he said. “This author gave us a glimpse into how Henrietta might feel if she knew.”

Photos by John Atashian. For more photos of the event, click here.