Students in Natalie Nannas' Bioethics class pose questions to Victoria Baptiste and Alfred Carter Jr., descendants of Henrietta Lacks.

Natalie Nannas’ Bioethics class joined descendants of Henrietta Lacks in a conversation about their family’s story on Friday, Sept. 29.

After reading and discussing Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the class generated questions for Victoria Baptiste and Alfred Carter Jr., a great-granddaughter and grandson of Henrietta Lacks. The two spoke in the Chapel on Sept. 28.

The class was interested in learning about the personal impact of Henrietta’s cells on the family. Aly Skelly ’18 asked how Alfred and Victoria first learned about HeLa and what their reaction was. Alfred recalled that although he knew about Henrietta’s cells as a child and had even seen her photo in books, he did not realize the true impact of his grandmother’s story until he read Michael Rogers’ 1976 Rolling Stone article about her when he was in his early 30s. It was an emotional experience for him to discover the human story behind the cells in addition to their scientific importance.

Similarly, Victoria’s mother told her about Henrietta’s immortal cells when she was a child, but she learned far more about the cells as an adult. Victoria described the feeling of being exposed when her family’s story became public, especially after Skloot’s book was published in 2010. It was “a vulnerable place to be,” she said, particularly as she learned some of her own family secrets along with the rest of the world. However, she has taken the experience as a lesson to be open and honest with her own children. “You need to know your history,” she said.

Erin Lewis ’18 asked whether the family wanted to learn about Henrietta’s genome. Both Victoria and Alfred agreed that they preferred to avoid the potentially anxiety-inducing information contained in the genome. “Just let me live; I don’t want to know,” said Alfred.

Martha Salas ’18 and Diana Suder ’18 were interested in the family’s attitude toward science and whether Henrietta’s story had inspired any of her descendants to study medicine. Victoria said that the medical impact of Henrietta’s cells partially influenced her decision to become a nurse. She said it gives her “a deep respect for [her] grandmother” to know how much her cells impact our daily lives. Learning about the injustices surrounding the collection of her great-grandmother’s tissue has also fueled her passion for nursing. She is adamant about her patients having a full understanding of their care and actually reading and discussing consent forms.

Victoria stressed to the class that nobody should have to see their family member endure what Henrietta did. However, she is comforted to know that her family’s struggles and sacrifices have had an immense impact on the scientific world and have allowed for some of the most impactful medical discoveries since Henrietta’s cells were first cultured over 60 years ago.

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