Henrietta Lacks Traveling Museum casts light on family history, medical wonders and controversy

KALAMAZOO, MI — The Henrietta Lacks Traveling Museum is making a stop in its creator’s hometown.

Curated by Jermaine Jackson, a great nephew of Lacks, the museum tells the history of a woman who’s cell line is responsible for numerous scientific breakthroughs — to include polio and COVID-19 vaccines, cancer and AIDS treatments and more — will be on display at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in Kalamazoo Nov. 20-21.

Related: COVID-19 vaccinations ‘overwhelming’ for Kalamazoo family related to the immortal Henrietta Lacks

Jackson, a Kalamazoo Public Library employee and Kalmazoo Public Schools trustee, told MLive he was inspired to create the now-traveling exhibit when he first learned about his great aunt, who was married to Jackson’s grandmother’s brother-in-law.

Jackson’s grandmother, Bessie Lacks, like Jackson, also lives in Kalamazoo.

Bessie Lacks had told Jackson stories about his great aunt’s cell line and how it was the first immortal cell line ever discovered and had been used in multiple medical breakthroughs, but Jackson said he always thought the stories were nothing more than science fiction.

That is, until Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” hit the library shelves and Bessie Lacks asked him to reserve a copy for her.

Jackson read the book — which later became a movie starring Oprah Winfrey playing his cousin Deborah Lacks — and was blown away to learn of his family’s controversial and medically significant history.

It was in the pages of Skloot’s book that Jackson came to understand the full scope of the importance of Henrietta Lacks’ cell line which was discovered as his great aunt died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

Neither the family, nor Henrietta Lacks, had granted doctors permission to use her cells for research and it was years before the family knew the cells were being used.

Bessie Lacks told MLive in an interview this past spring that there is a great deal of pride in knowing what her sister-in-law’s cell lines have done to help others, but like other family members, she feels a great injustice was done to her own family along the way as doctors kept their discovery from the family for 25 years when they asked them to assist in research.

There should have been some compensation for the family members who didn’t even know Henrietta Lacks’ cells were being sold and distributed to laboratories across the world as major medical breakthroughs were being made with the HeLa cells, she said.

“They were just a normal family with something tragic that happened, and their dad he had to raise the kids on his own,” Bessie Lacks said. “They grew up poor. He did the best he could, but he had to work and he’d pay somebody else to watch the kids. … They couldn’t afford their own medical care.”

It wasn’t until Skloot began a decade’s worth of research at the turn of the century that the family truly began to understand the magnitude of of that significance. And it was another 10 years until Skloot set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, before the family saw any form of compensation.

The foundation was created in 2010 by Skloot to benefit those who made important contributions to scientific research without previously benefitting from them.

By that time, millions of people had benefitted from medical discoveries as a direct result of Henrietta Lacks’ cells, be it through Parkinson’s, AIDS or cancer treatments or the polio vaccine. HeLa cells had played an important role in medical breakthroughs with all of those discoveries as time and again doctors and researchers studied how the cells reacted to being responded with various viruses and diseases.

Jackson’s traveling four-themed exhibit, created in 2017, highlights the family history of Henrietta Lacks, the scientific wonders her cells are tied to and the controversy that surrounds the taking of her cells against her will. The exhibit also features artwork from more than a half-dozen artists depicting Henrietta Lacks’ legacy.

It’s purpose is to both educate and to humanize the great aunt he never met, Jackson said.

The museum is open to the public from 4-8 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 20 and from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. and 3-7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 21 at the Radisson Plaza, 100 W. Michigan Ave. A $10 donation is requested per attendee and all proceeds will benefit the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. Jackson will be on hand the entire time to answer questions and talk about the exhibit. Contributing artists will also be present the second Sunday session.

There is also a VIP session from noon-2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 20. The session has limited space and costs $25. Both Bessie Lacks and Jackson will be on hand at the VIP session and there will be a keynote speech from Dr. Thomas Rothstein of the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. Rothstein will discuss, among other things, his personal work with HeLa cells.

The exhibit is sponsored by Merze Tate Explorers and The Kalamazoo Promise. Click here to purchase tickets online. VIP tickets are available online only in advance. For the general sessions, tickets may be purchased in advance or in person at the door.

In addition to the stop at the Radisson, Jackson said the museum will make stops at the Grand Rapids African American Museum as well as at Kalamazoo College during Black History Month in February 2022. He also plans to visit Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School in Vancouver, Washington in the fall.

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Christin Hakim

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