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 Dr. Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield? Was he really a doctor? Was he really a lawyer? Was he really a member of the aristocracy?
Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield was just a conman, who claimed to be related to Henrietta Lacks. He posed as both a lawyer and a doctor after already serving time in prison for fraud.
Learn more about Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield, his cons, and his many lawsuits.
The Lackses Meet Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield
Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield claimed to be distantly related to Deborah by marriage—the family wasn’t exactly sure how—and when he called Deborah out of the blue, he told her he was a lawyer and that the family should copyright “Henrietta Lacks” and sue Hopkins for medical malpractice. He believed that Hopkins had made millions off of HeLa and that the Lackses were entitled to their share. (In his response to Speed and Wyche’s petition about Henrietta, an assistant to the president of Johns Hopkins emphasized that the school had never made any money from the culture and distribution of HeLa.) If the Lackses wanted his help, Cofield would work for free and only accept payment if he won.
Soon enough Deborah was introducing Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield as the family’s lawyer. He began visiting Hopkins daily to search through the medical school’s archives. He reported terrifying details to the Lackses: That Henrietta had been treated by unqualified or incompetent doctors, that her cancer had been misdiagnosed, that her death might have been caused by a radiation overdose rather than the cancer.
Pretending to Be Dr. Keenan Kester Cofield
One day Cofield attempted to view Henrietta’s medical records. When he was denied—only doctors and family members were allowed access to the records—he claimed he was Dr. Keenan Kester Cofield. This tipped off a Hopkins lawyer, who discovered Dr. Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield was neither a lawyer nor a doctor but a long-time conman who’d spent time in prison for fraud and sued anyone he could to make a buck. The lawyer immediately notified Deborah, and Cofield was barred from seeing Henrietta’s records.
Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield Turns on the Lackses
Realizing his relationship with the Lackses was over, Dr. Keenan Kester Cofield sued everybody: Deborah and Lawrence, Courtney Speed and her foundation, and a host of Hopkins employees. Among Cofield’s many accusations, the most absurd was that, because Henrietta Lacks’s birth name was Loretta Pleasant and no official record existed of her changing her name, Henrietta Lacks didn’t truly exist and her family had no right to her records.
Impact on the Deborah Lacks
As Deborah received legal document after legal document, she took out her fear and frustration on Speed. One day she barged into Speed’s Grocery, yelled at Speed, and demanded everything she owned related to Henrietta Lacks. The irony was that Speed herself was frightened. She too had received mountains of legal documents—they were piling up in the store’s backroom.
Around this time the BBC documentary aired, and Deborah began fielding calls and requests from reporters. She decided that she needed to see her mother’s medical records for herself and went to Hopkins to request a copy. While she was there, she met with the Hopkins lawyer who had warned her about Cofield, and he assured her that Hopkins would handle Cofield’s litigation (Hopkins eventually would get the case dismissed). Unfortunately, Cofield’s behavior had worried the small group hoping to commemorate Henrietta, and the group dropped the idea.
The ugly episode with Cofield took a toll on Deborah. Even though the case had been dismissed, Deborah worried that Cofield might try to steal from her to hurt her further. She became a shut-in, only leaving the house to work her job as a bus driver for children with special needs. After a teenager on the bus attacked her on two separate occasions, the second time injuring her spine, her mood darkened even further.
Where Is Dr. Keenan Kester Cofield Now?
As of 2009, Skloot was unable to find Dr. Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield. He filed a lawsuit in 2008, his last to date, in which he sued 226 entities and people for over $10 billion.
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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