The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Characters

Henrietta Lacks

An African American wife and mother with a sixth-grade education, Henrietta Lacks dies at 31 of a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Without her knowledge or consent, doctors at Johns Hopkins take samples of… (read full character analysis)

Rebecca Skloot (the author)

A young white woman, Rebecca becomes obsessed with Henrietta Lacks after learning about her story in high school. Despite the suspicions of Henrietta’s family, Rebecca uses persistence, patience, and honesty to gain their respect as… (read full character analysis)

Deborah (Dale) Lacks

The eccentric but devoted daughter of Henrietta, Deborah proves to be invaluable in helping Rebecca learn more about Henrietta. Although she is paranoid and highly emotional, Deborah also proves to be fiercely loyal to… (read full character analysis)

David (Day) Lacks

Henrietta’s husband, Day is old and forgetful by the time that Rebecca begins to write her story about his wife. Day is raised along with Henrietta as a child, and the two begin having… (read full character analysis)

Dr. George Gey

The head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins, George Gey is the scientist responsible for growing HeLa into the first immortal human cell line. Having worked his way up from nothing, Gey is… (read full character analysis)
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Joe Lacks (Zakariyya)

Henrietta’s youngest child, Joe is physically and emotionally abused after his mother dies. He grows up with severe mental issues and problems with authority and is eventually imprisoned for murder. In jail, he converts… (read full character analysis)

Lucille Elsie Pleasant

Henrietta’s oldest daughter, Elsie has mental challenges and seizures, and eventually must be institutionalized. Rebecca implies that her difficulties may have been caused by syphilis that Day passed on to his wife and unborn… (read full character analysis)

Roland Pattillo

A professor of gynecology at Morehouse and one of George Gey’s only African American students. Pattillo organizes a cancer control symposium in honor of Henrietta. He is Rebecca’s original link to the Lackses… (read full character analysis)

Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield

A distant relative of the Lackses, he contacts Deborah Lacks claiming to be both a lawyer and a doctor and urging her to copyright Henrietta’s name in order to get a cut of the… (read full character analysis)
Minor Characters
Lawrence Lacks
Henrietta’s oldest son, born soon after her fourteenth birthday, Lawrence is drafted into the army at age sixteen after lying about his age. He eventually has children with and marries Bobbette Cooper, who helps raise his younger siblings after Henrietta dies.
Sonny Lacks
Henrietta’s second son, Sonny suffers after his mother dies; he joins the air force and is eventually honorably discharged, but then is later jailed for narcotics trafficking.
Dr. Howard Jones
The gynecologist who treats Henrietta’s cancer, Howard Jones allows Dr. George Gey to take samples from many of his patients, including Henrietta. After Gey’s death, he collaborates on an article about the HeLa cell line.
Christoph Lengauer
A researcher at Hopkins, he hears about Rebecca’s research and is appalled that Henrietta hasn’t received more recognition. To thank the Lackses, he creates a colored print of Henrietta’s chromosomes magnified by a high-powered microscope. He gives the print to Deborah, who in turn gifts it to Zakariyya (Joe).
Henrietta’s cousin and one of her closest friends, Margaret lives near Johns Hopkins, and Henrietta stays at her house after her treatments. She supplies Rebecca with many memories of Henrietta.
One of Henrietta’s cousins and closest friends, Sadie has many memories of Henrietta that she shares with Rebecca.
Margaret Gey
George’s wife and fellow researcher, Margaret has trained as a surgical nurse, and believes that creating a sterile environment is crucial to encouraging an immortal cell culture.
Mary Kubicek
Twenty-one years old and working at George Gey’s lab, Mary processes Henrietta’s cell sample despite her initial belief that the cells aren’t going to grow. She is chosen for Gey’s lab because of her deft, delicate hands.
Dr. Richard Wesley TeLinde
Dr. Howard Jones’ supervisor at Hopkins, TeLinde is one of the top cervical cancer experts in the country, and advocates for an aggressive treatment approach.
Donald Defler
Rebecca’s professor at community college, he is the first person to mention Henrietta’s name to her, as he includes a discussion of the HeLa cell line in a lesson about cancer.
Laure Aurelian
A microbiologist who worked with Gey when he took samples from Henrietta. Aurelian claims that Gey told a dying Henrietta that her cells would save the lives of countless people, and that Henrietta was moved by the news.
Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr.
The surgeon who operates on Henrietta’s cervical cancer, though he first collects samples of her cancerous cells.
Bobbette Cooper
Lawrence Lacks’ wife, who helps to raise the Lacks siblings after Henrietta dies and Ethel’s abuse is uncovered.
Alfred “Cheetah” Carter
Deborah’s childhood crush. He eventually marries her, but soon after begins abusing her, and they eventually separate.
James Pullum
Deborah’s second husband. He is a car mechanic before becoming a preacher. Though the two eventually separate, they remain close.
Alfred Jr.
Deborah’s son, who spends his life in and out of jail.
Deborah’s daughter.
Stanley Gartler
A geneticist who finds a major problem in cell culturing: HeLa cells have contaminated all eighteen of the most commonly used cell cultures in the world.
Alexis Carrel
A French surgeon at the Rockefeller Institute in the early 20th century. Carrel is a famous scientist who wins a Nobel Prize for his work, but he is also a racist and a eugenicist.
Leonard Hayflick
The scientist who disproves Carrel’s work.
Michael Rogers
The first reporter to write about the Lackses. His article in Rolling Stone features Henrietta in 1976.
Tommy Lacks
Henrietta’s grandfather, who raises both her and her future husband, Day, from childhood.
Fred Garret
Henrietta and Day’s cousin. Fred convinces the couple to move their family in order to be closer to a steel mill, before getting drafted. A cousin of Henrietta’s, he works in the fields with her and Day during their childhood
Cliff Garret
Fred’s brother, and co-owner of a convenience store. He’s a cousin of Henrietta’s, he works in the fields with her and Day during their childhood. Impoverished by the time Rebecca meets him, he eventually shows the author where Henrietta is buried.
Crazy Joe Grinnan
Henrietta’s cousin. This giant man is so in love with her that he tries to kill himself several times to prove his affection.
Henrietta’s sister, who believes that Day isn’t good enough to marry Henrietta.
Henrietta’s youngest sister.
Johnny Pleasant
Henrietta’s father, who gives up his children to different relatives after his wife Eliza Pleasant dies.
Eliza Lacks Pleasant
Henrietta’s mother, who dies in 1924 in childbirth.
John Hopkins
Having made millions as a banker and grocer, Hopkins donates $7 million to start Hopkins Hospital for the Poor, specifically hoping to help black patients.
George Papanicolaou
A Greek researcher who invents the Pap smear, a crucial test in detecting and combating cervical cancer.
Howard Kelly
The doctor who pioneers the use of radium in treating cervical cancer.
Henrietta’s cousin and Galen’s wife. Ethel hates Henrietta but moves into her house after Henrietta’s death. Ethel abuses and starves Henrietta’s children, but saves the cruelest treatment for Joe.
Ethel’s husband, who lusts after Henrietta before she dies. After Henrietta’s death, he sexually abuses her daughter Deborah.
Courtney Speed
A local woman who owns a grocery store and has created a foundation to build a Henrietta Lacks museum.
Barbara Wyche
A sociologist at Morgan State University who works with Courtney Speed to help get recognition for Henrietta.
Reverend Jackson
A local minister. Jackson helps Rebecca to find Courtney Speed.
Franklin Salisbury Jr.
The president of the National Foundation for Cancer Research. He organizes a conference in Henrietta’s honor and invites Deborah.
Paul Lurz
As the director of performance and improvement at Crownsville, he helps Deborah and Rebecca find records on Elsie.
Susan Hsu
A graduate student who works for McKusick, she attempts to obtain genetic samples from the Lackses. She does not communicate with them, however, and so they remain unaware of the purpose of the samples.
Henry Beecher
A Harvard anesthesiologist who publishes a study in the New England Journal of Medicine calling hundreds of scientific studies unethical.
George Hyatt
A Navy doctor working at the National Cancer Institute. He witnesses normal transplanted cells becoming malignant.
Lewis Coriell
A renowned cell culturist who publishes a paper about how normal cells become cancerous.
Chester Southam
A virologist who becomes concerned that humans can contract cancer from HeLa, and tests his theories on cancer patients and prisoners. His experiments are eventually condemned as immoral.
Emmanuel Mandel
The director of medicine at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in Brooklyn. He makes an agreement with Southam allowing him to conduct research on patients, but other doctors protest the deal and the experiment is eventually condemned and halted.
William Hyman
A lawyer on the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital’s board. He becomes concerned about the Southam experiments.
Louis Lefkowitz
The New York Attorney General who launches an investigation into Southam and Mandel’s research, accusing them of fraud and unprofessional conduct.
Bertil Bjorklund
A Swedish cancer researcher who injects both himself and his patients with HeLa cells for the purposes of experimentation.
Alice Moore
A researcher and Southam’s colleague.
Martin Salgo
The patient whose case provided precedent for the idea of informed consent.
Robert Stevenson
A scientist involved in the meeting about HeLa contaminating other cells. He eventually becomes the president of the American Type Culture Collection.
T. C. Hsu
A geneticist from the University of Texas, and the chair of Gartler’s conference session.
Robert Chang
The creator of the Chang Liver Cell Line and a Harvard scientist. He is dismayed to find that his cell line has been contaminated by HeLa.
Walter Nelson-Rees
A chromosome expert and director of cell culture at the Naval Biomedical Research Laboratory, Nelson-Rees discovers that cells claimed by Russian scientists to have a cancer virus are actually HeLa.
Harry Eagle
A researcher at the NIH who uses HeLa to develop a standardized culture medium that can be made by the gallon and be shipped ready to use.
Samuel Reader
The owner of Microbiological Associates. He helps to make cell culturing a profitable industry.
Monroe Vincent
A researcher and business partner of Reader’s who helps use HeLa to create an industrial-scale, for-profit cell distribution center.
William Scherer
One of George Gey’s colleagues on the NFIP advisory committee.
Jerome Syverton
William Scherer’s adviser in Minneapolis.
Victor McKusick
A leading geneticist at Hopkins. He helps write an article about the HeLa cells line in tribute to Gey after the researcher’s death.
Roland H. Berg
A press officer at NFIP who insists on releasing Henrietta’s name in an article about cell cultures.
Bill Davidson
A reporter from Collier’s Magazine. He contacts Gey for information about Henrietta, but eventually gets her name wrong in his article.
J. Douglas
A researcher at Brunel University who writes a letter to Nature about HeLa and Henrietta’s anonymity.
Henry Harris
A researcher who fuses HeLa with mouse cells, thereby creating human/animal hybrids with his partner John Watkins.
John Watkins
A researcher who fuses HeLa with mouse cells, thereby creating human/animal hybrids with his partner Henry Harris.
John Moore
After he contracts leukemia, his cells are used to make the Mo cell line, which eventually becomes immensely profitable for David Golde. Moore ends up suing Golde for the profits.
David Golde
A researcher at UCLA. He investigates John Moore’s tissues, and eventually develops a cell line called Mo that makes him millions.
Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty
A scientist at GE, he creates a bacterium that can clean up oil spills but is at first denied a patent because a bacterium is a living organism. Eventually, however, he wins his case because the bacterium wasn’t naturally occurring.
Ted Slavin
A hemophiliac who was repeatedly exposed to hepatitis B through contaminated blood. He has large quantities of antibodies in his system to fight the disease, and eventually sells his blood serum to help find a cure for the illness.
Baruch Blumberg
A Nobel Prize-winning virologist, he enters into a years-long partnership with Slavin that eventually leads to his discovering the hepatitis B antigen and creating the first hepatitis B vaccine.
Judge Joseph Warner
He referees the depositions in the case of John Moore against David Golde.
Michael Gold
The author of a book about HeLa contamination that eventually makes its way to the Lackses.
Harald zur Hausen
The discoverer of HPV, the virus which caused Henrietta’s cancer.
Richard Axel
A Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist, he infects HeLa cells with HIV in order to understand the virus’s infection process.
Jeremy Rifkin
An author and activist against the manipulation of DNA. He sues to halt Richard Axel’s research.
Leigh van Valen
An evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. She posits that the HeLa cells have become their own species.
Adam Curtis
A BBC producer who makes a documentary about Henrietta.
Terry Sharrer
As the curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, he helps to organize a small event in honor of Henrietta.
Representative Robert Ehrlich Jr.
A U.S. congressman who speaks in the house asking for Henrietta to be acknowledged as the donor of the HeLa cell line.
William Brody
William Brody is the president of Johns Hopkins when the Lackses (with the help of Wyche) try to get acknowledgement from the hospital.
Ross Jones
Brody’s assistant.
Richard Kidwell
An attorney at Hopkins who eventually exposes Cofield as a fraud.
Grover Hutchins
A pathologist who is listed in Cofield’s lawsuit.
JoAnn Rodgers
A Hopkins spokesperson who speaks to Rebecca.
Kathy Hudson
A molecular biologist and chief of staff at the NIH who talks to Rebecca about privacy issues surrounding stored samples.
Judith Greenberg
The director of the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the National Institute of General Medical Science, she discuss issues surrounding the donation of tissues with Rebecca.
Ellen Wright Clayton
A physician and lawyer, and director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt. She seeks a public debate about researchers’ possession and use of patients’ tissues.
Lori Andrews
The director of the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology at Illinois Institute of Tech. She wants conscientious objectors to refuse to give tissue samples.
David Korn
The vice provost for research at Harvard, who believes that giving patients power over their tissues is shortsighted and ultimately impossible.
Warren Grody
The director of the Diagnostic Molecular Pathology Laboratory at UCLA. He is an opponent of tissue research consent, believing it to be unfeasible.
Robert Weir
The founder of a biomedical ethics center at the University of Iowa, he favors fewer lawsuits and more disclosure by researchers.
Vincent Racaniello
A professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia, he is horrified at the idea of restricting HeLa cell use.
President Richard Nixon
The president of the United States from 1969-74, Nixon signs the National Cancer Act into law and launches the War on Cancer.
Marie Curie
Part of the husband-and-wife team that discovered radium and its ability to destroy cancer cells.
Pierre Curie
Part of the husband-and-wife team that discovered radium and its ability to destroy cancer cells.
Jonas Salk
A researcher who invents the polio vaccine.
Warren Lewis
George Gey’s mentor.
A friend of Bobbette’s. Her brother-in-law reveals the truth about the HeLa cell line to Bobbette, who then shares it with the Lacks family.
A cleaning woman local to Baltimore whose job it is to keep the Geys’ lab spotless.
Gladys’s son and Henrietta’s nephew, he blesses and prays with Deborah after she visits Crownsville.
Hector Henry (Cootie)
Henrietta’s cousin, who is partially paralyzed because of polio.
Emmett Lacks
A cousin of Henrietta’s, he helps organize her relatives to donate blood for her.
Eldridge Lee Ivy
A man in the Lackses’ neighborhood. He threatens Joe, but Joe eventually stabs and kills him.
A friend of Joe Lacks.
The midwife who delivers Henrietta in 1920.
The midwife who delivers Day.
Henrietta’s enslaved great-great grandmother.
Mourning’s son, and Henrietta’s great grandfather.
Henrietta Pleasant
Edmund’s daughter and Henrietta’s great aunt.
Albert Lacks
Henrietta’s maternal great grandfather, who is white.
Winston Lacks
Albert’s son.
Benjamin Lacks
Albert’s son.
Albert Lacks Jr.
Albert’s son.
A slave, and the mother of Albert’s children.
John Smith Pleasants
The white man who owned both Mourning and her husband.
Carlton Lacks
One of the oldest white Lackses in Clover, he is a distant cousin to the black Lackses, but says racist things about them.
Ruby Lacks
One of the oldest white Lackses in Clover, she is a distant cousin to the black Lackses, but says racist things about them.
Deborah’s grandson.
Keith Speed
Courtney Speed’s oldest son.
Cyrus Speed
Courtney Speed’s son.
Joe Speed
Courtney Speed’s son.
Tyrone Speed
Courtney Speed’s son.
George Gey Jr.
George Gey’s son.
Sonny’s baby granddaughter.
The Greeter
A man who welcomes people as they arrive in Clover, he directs Rebecca to Lacks Town.
Old Man Snow
The first owner of a tractor in Clover, Henrietta’s childhood home.