This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.
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Who was Henrietta Lacks’s husband? How did she end up marrying her cousin, David “Day” Lacks? What happened to David Lacks Sr. after she passed?
David Day Lacks was the husband and first cousin of Henrietta Lacks. Together, she and David Lacks Sr. had five children.
Find out about David Day Lacks and his life with and after Henrietta Lacks.
David Lacks Sr. Marries Henrietta Lacks
Loretta Pleasant, called Henrietta, was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, and raised in a small town in Virginia called Clover. At fourteen, she gave birth to her first child, a son named Lawrence; the father was her cousin, David “Day” Lacks. Four years later, she had a second child by him named Lucile Elsie, whom everyone called Elsie and who evidenced traits of a developmental disability. (Elsie would later be institutionalized.)
Henrietta and Day Lacks were married in 1941, when they were 20 and 25 respectively. Gladys, Henrietta’s sister, objected to the marriage because she thought Day would be a bad husband.
The Lacks Family Moves to Turner Station
At the end of the year, a cousin who’d moved to Baltimore paid Lacks Town a visit. He’d gone north to work at the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point, and he was living in Turner Station, a community of black steelworkers situated just outside of downtown Baltimore. The war effort, thrown into high gear by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, had created new opportunities for African-American workers—Sparrow’s Point would become the biggest steel plant in the world—and the cousin Henrietta Lacks, Day Lacks, and their family to join him in Turner Station.
David Day Lacks went first to establish himself and buy a home for Henrietta and the two children. Mere months after David Lacks Sr. arrived, the cousin was drafted and gave his savings to help Henrietta Lacks, Day Lacks, and the kids move to Turner Station.
Henrietta’s Illness and Death
After the hospitalization of Henrietta Lacks, Day Lacks came with the children to visit at first, but the nurses soon told the family that it made Henrietta too upset—she would weep for hours after her family left. Day and the children took to playing on the lawn outside Henrietta’s window so she could watch them.
Henrietta died in October 1951. In the two months she was in the hospital, tumors had colonized her body, appearing as high as her diaphragm and lungs, and she’d needed constant blood transfusions because her kidneys were failing. The pain was tremendous. Her last words were to her sister Gladys. She implored her to make sure Day took care of the children.
The Aftermath for David “Day” Lacks and His Children
Years later, the family was still not doing well. Zakariyya, for his part, had been released from jail early, having served about half of his fifteen-year sentence. He was effectively homeless: His anger issues made keeping a job difficult, and he resented David “Day” Lacks so intensely for leaving him to Ethel’s abuse that he refused to sleep in Day’s house. He would often sleep on the steps of a church across the street from Day’s; it wasn’t uncommon for Day to pass his own son sleeping on the concrete when he left the house.
Day was silver-haired and wrinkled with age, and he was forced to wear sandals due to gangrene in his toes. The doctors wanted to amputate the affected toes because the gangrene was spreading, but David “Day” Lacks refused on account of what the doctors had done to his wife. Sonny, too, needed an operation but was set against it for the same reason.
Presently Sonny handed Day Skloot’s tape recorder and told him to say what he knew about his wife. Rather than talk about Henrietta’s life, however, Day told the story of the day he went to Hopkins and signed off on Henrietta’s autopsy. No one told him anything about keeping alive the cells of Henrietta Lacks, Day Lacks said the doctors only told him that, by performing the autopsy, they might be able to save Day’s children and grandchildren from cancer.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summary:
- How Henrietta's cells became used in thousands of labs worldwide
- The complications of Henrietta's lack of consent
- How the Lacks family is coping with the impact of Henrietta's legacy