Long before there was a settlement with the family of Henrietta Lacks, her only living son was talking to anybody about how medical scientists stole his mother’s cancer cells and netted millions.
Even though a New York author wrote a best-selling book and Oprah made a movie, Lawrence Lacks and his son Ron Lacks still didn’t feel whole as they talked to a group of high school students online at Howard and Morgan State universities six years ago.
“I was about 15 years old and I felt that most every time I went to Johns Hopkins, they did certain things with her cells and her body and I always said ‘No’ to them,” said Lawrence Lacks in an interview with me and the students for a summer health program in 2017. “NIH, they were in on it, and they wouldn’t listen to anything we had to say.”
Seated next to his father, Ron Lacks weighed in: “Being a Black person at Johns Hopkins, there were too many doctors in her room, and she knew something was wrong… We later found out they were researchers.”
Lawrence Lacks continued to tell his mother’s and family’s story until his death, just weeks after his family reached a settlement with a biomedical firm brokered by lawyer Ben Crump.
On Aug. 27, Crump tweeted: “Lawrence Lacks Sr. — Henrietta Lacks’ last living child — has died at 86. We are so grateful he lived to see his mother’s life-changing contributions to modern medicine finally be recognized. We’ll continue on our journey of fighting for FULL justice for his family in his honor.”
In the same way that Crump and Rev. Al Sharpton teamed up to fight for families during the Black Lives Matter movement, they took on the fight for the Lacks but details of the settlement have not been disclosed.
Sharpton was asked by the family to speak at Lawrence Lacks’ funeral in Faith Christian Fellowship in Owings Mills.
“It is an honor beyond words to be asked to come and give words … for a man who would never give up the fight, no matter how bleak and hopeless it looked,” Sharpton said.
Lawrence Lacks grew up in Turner Station in Maryland’s Baltimore County.
He spent the last 63 years of his life fighting for the recognition, justice and ownership of his mother’s HeLa cell line. His efforts were recognized globally when the World Health Organization posthumously awarded Henrietta Lacks the Director General’s Award in 2022.
U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D- Md.), who represents sections of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, joined U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D) and Ben Cardin (D) in seeking to posthumously grant Henrietta Lacks a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of her contributions to medicine.
During the funeral, Mfume said he had known the Lacks family most of his life and as a young man he looked up to Lawrence Lacks.
“My role today is just simply to say goodbye to my friend,” said Mfume. He added that Lacks was full of “animation, and kidding and jokes.”
The Maryland Congressman said Lawrence Lacks was much more than the last living child of Henrietta Lacks.
“He is a very distinguished man in his own right,” Mfume said. “He served his country when he didn’t have to as a member of the armed services. He was the first Black engineer for Amtrak.”
Lawrence Lacks also owned several businesses that included – an insurance company, a sweet shop and a meat market.
In a tribute to his uncle during the service, Alfred Carter said Lawrence Lacks was more than simply a senior member of the family.
“When he was fighting this battle, he was the backbone; he was the spirit,” Carter said. “Today isn’t a somber day; it’s a celebration.”
Ron Lacks said he is grateful his father was able to share the Lacks family story with the world.
“I’m so proud my dad got to tell his story before he left here,” said his son Ron Lacks. “He was really, really proud of the family coming together and getting the justice we got for our grandmother.”
Lawrence Lacks Fought for Justice to the End
“He wanted the country to “deal with justice for his mother,” said Sharpton.
On Oct. 1, 1951, Lacks was biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. These cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey, who created the cell line known as HeLa.
Lacks died of cervical cancer on Oct. 4 1951 at the age of 31. But the surgeons at Johns Hopkins harvested cells from her tumor without her permission or the knowledge of her family. These cells became the basis for the first immortal human cell line, HeLa (Henrietta Lacks).
In 2021, Congress passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act, which requires a study of how agencies address barriers to participating in federally funded cancer clinical trials by underrepresented groups and provide recommendations to address barriers. The same year, Lawrence Lacks accepted the World Health Organization Director-General’s award on behalf of his mother. A year later, he became a WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Cervical Cancer Elimination.
Sharpton said Lawrence Lacks “held on through illness” to witness the settlement with the Massachusetts-based biotech company Thermo Fisher Scientific for profiting off the cells taken without her knowledge.
The settlement was announced Sept. 1, which would have been Henrietta Lacks’ 103rd birthday.
The Rev. Samson Doolin, senior pastor at Faith Christian Fellowship, and the Rev. Dr. Franklin Lance, senior pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, led a prayer of comfort during the service. Lawrence Lacks was a longtime member of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Baltimore.
Lawrence Lacks is survived by six children, their spouses, and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and family and friends, many who were also in attendance during the service. “Every child, every man should look at him and say that that’s what we should be like,” Sharpton said briefly to news media in the lobby as the service continued. “He fought not only for his family, not only for his grandchildren and his loved ones, he fought for all of us.”