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 the first child of Henrietta Lacks and the sibling of Deborah Lacks? What happened to Lawrence Lacks? Where is Lawrence Lacks today?
Lawrence Lacks is the first child of Henrietta Lacks and was born when she was just 14. After the death of Henrietta Lacks, Lawrence Lacks served in the military.
Find out about the life of Lawrence Lacks.
The first child of Henrietta Lacks, Lawrence Lacks, was born when Henrietta was 14. After Henrietta passed, Galen, Henrietta’s cousin, and his wife Ethel moved into the Lacks house in Turner Station to help take care of the children. At the time of Henrietta’s death, there were three children under the age of four—Sonny, Deborah, and Joe—and Lawrence, who was a teenager.
Lawrence Lacks Leaves the Family Home
Lawrence Lacks, meanwhile, though only 16, had been drafted into the military (he’d lied about his age to get into the local pool halls, but that lie also made him eligible for the draft). When he returned in 1953, he moved into his own house and so had no idea what Ethel was doing to his siblings. Day, too, was either unaware or in denial—rumor had it he was sleeping with Ethel.
In 1959, Lawrence moved in with his girlfriend, Bobbette Cooper, and she demanded that Lawrence’s siblings come live with them. Bobbette also told Deborah to fight off her cousins if they ever tried to have sex with her and to wait until she was an adult before she had babies. As Deborah grew, her male cousins did assault her, but she managed to fight them off.
The Lackses’ First Brush with HeLa
The Lacks family discovered Henrietta’s cells were still alive by chance, when Bobbette, in 1973, met a researcher at the National Cancer Institute who was working with HeLa cells and had recently read one of the articles that identified Henrietta Lacks. Lawrence Lacks found out about this because Bobbette told him immediately. Lawrence told Day. When Lawrence called Hopkins to ask about his mother, however, the switchboard operator couldn’t find any records for a patient with that name.
Skloot Meets the Lacks Men
On New Year’s Day 2000, two months after Skloot initially went to Baltimore to meet Sonny Lacks and he turned her down, Skloot was finally able to meet the Lacks men.
The first Lacks she met was Sonny, who picked her up at her hotel to bring her to Lawrence’s. He was about 5’9”, with a manicured mustache and a kind affect.
In the car, Sonny told Skloot that he didn’t remember his mother; everything he knew he’d learned second-hand. He’d been told she was “nice” and attractive and a good cook. And he knew that her cells had played a role in medical advances like the vaccine for polio.
Sonny brought Skloot to the home of Lawrence Lacks but didn’t come inside—he drove off immediately after Skloot exited the car. Inside Lawrence’s, Skloot found Lawrence cooking pork chops. He was six feet tall and close to 300 pounds.
Skloot accepted Lawrence’s offer of food, and while he cooked, he told Skloot about life in Clover and tobacco farming. Whenever Skloot brought up Henrietta Lacks, Lawrence Lacks changed the subject. Finally, he admitted that he’d repressed his memories of his mother, and that the only thing he remembered about her was that she was strict with him.
They sat at a table in the living room, and Lawrence described what he knew about his mother’s cells. His understanding was that they were still growing, and he thought they would be turned into a serum that would allow a human being to live until he or she was 800 years old. When it became apparent that Lawrence didn’t know exactly what a cell was, Skloot explained it to him.
In the middle of their conversation, Sonny returned—with Day. 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 Day 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. While the Lacks men and Skloot were talking, Bobbette, Lawrence’s wife, descended the stairs and walked past everyone into the kitchen without saying a word.
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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