Lawrence Lacks Sr., a son of Henrietta Lacks who lived to see his family’s first legal settlement with a biotechnology company over the use of the HeLa cell line, died of complications from liver disease Saturday at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.
The Northwest Baltimore resident was 88.
“We all grew up in Turner Station and I was part of the younger group, Lawrence was 14 years older than me, and my mother knew his mother,” said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Democrat representing Maryland’s 7th District.
“He was the oldest kid in the neighborhood and he set the tone. Lawrence was a fighter, had street smarts and a great sense of humor. I’ve always looked up to him,” Mr. Mfume said. “He knew how things worked and he knew how to fight and he fought for his mother’s legacy.”
Courtney Speed is founder and president of the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group, which honors the memory and sacrifice of Henrietta Lacks.
“Lawrence was very warm and gentle and genial in conversation,” Mrs. Speed said. “We call Henrietta Lacks the ‘Miracle Medical Mother of the World’ and Lawrence worked hard to preserve her memory, history and legacy.”
Before his death, Mr. Lacks was the longest living of the five children of Mrs. Lacks and her husband David “Day” Lacks, a pair of tobacco farmers from Clover, Virginia, who moved to Turner Station in Baltimore County in 1941, so the elder Mr. Lacks could work at Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Sparrows Point.
Lawrence Lacks attended city public schools until leaving when he was 16 to care for his mother while his father worked.
Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer Oct. 4, 1951, at age 31.
“He witnessed her passing and was traumatized by what the radiation had done to his mother,” said a son, Ron Lacks, of Rosedale, whose book “Henrietta Lacks: The Untold Story” was published in 2020. “He was so traumatized by what had happened that he didn’t talk about her for years.”
After earning his GED from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Mr. Lacks went into the Army where he served in the medical field, family members said.
After completing his service, he went to work for the old Pennsylvania Railroad and eventually became a locomotive engineer.
He worked for successor companies Penn-Central Railroad and Conrail before becoming an Amtrak engineer in 1973. He retired about 30 years ago.
“He worked Baltimore to Boston passenger trains,” his son said.
Mr. Lacks rose to national prominence along with his family in 2011 when Rebecca Skloot wrote “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a book probing the collection of Mrs. Lacks’ cells by Johns Hopkins physicians without her permission decades prior.
Little was known about Mrs. Lacks before the book, which was adapted into an HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey, was published — Mr. Lacks and other family members recalled giving blood samples to Hopkins researchers in the 1970s but not knowing they were being used to research Mrs. Lacks’ cells.
Mrs. Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, and her cells were sampled without her knowledge or consent during treatment. The cells continued replicating, and became known as the HeLa cell line, which has been used in several medical breakthroughs over the past seven decades.
In 2017, Mr. Lacks, the executor of his mother’s estate, hired an attorney to consider litigation against Hopkins for the use of his mother’s cells.
“The HeLa cells put Johns Hopkins at the top of the research chain worldwide,” Ron Lacks told The Baltimore Sun. “And we’re thinking that we need Congress to step in and stop Johns Hopkins until we find out what is going on.”
No legal challenges were filed until 2021, when the family hired famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump to explore lawsuits against biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies which profit from HeLa cells. The first of those cases, against Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific, was settled on undisclosed terms last month. Days after the victory, the family filed another lawsuit against Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical.
Mr. Lacks wasn’t able to attend the news conference because of health issues, but when he arrived home, Ron Lacks spoke to his father.
“I took off my jacket and said, ‘It’s done,’” he said. “And he was so proud.”
“What a lesson it was to be with him,” Mrs. Speed said. “We always gather on Aug. 1 at Union Baptist Church in Turner Station to celebrate Henrietta Lacks who was born Aug. 1, 1920, with a homecoming service celebrating and honoring her, and Lawrence was there.”
The Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group, which got a marker placed on Mrs. Lacks’ former Turner Station residence, is in the process of remodeling a building that will be named for her, Mrs. Speed said.
“We are so grateful [Mr. Lacks] lived to see his mother’s life-changing contributions to modern medicine finally be recognized,” Mr. Crump said Sunday on social media. “We will continue on our journey of fighting for FULL justice for his family in his honor.”
Earlier this summer, the Lacks family, including Mr. Lacks, gathered on the footsteps of The Capitol with Mr. Mfume and U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin to celebrate pending federal legislation that would posthumously grant Henrietta Lacks a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
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“It started to rain and Lawrence and I were under an umbrella and we talked and laughed about the old days in Turner Station, and then because of the weather, we had to move the ceremony inside the Capitol,” Mr. Mfume said.
“When it came time for a photograph of the entire Lacks family Lawrence, who was in a wheelchair, wanted to know where I was, and I said, ‘I’m behind you, Lawrence,’ and put my hand on his shoulder,” he said. “It was the last time we were together, and I shall always cherish that picture.”
His wife of many years, Bobbett Yvonne Cooper, a registered nurse and homemaker, died in 2022.
Plans for a funeral are incomplete.
In addition to Ron Lacks, he is survived by another son, Lawrence Lacks Jr. of Rosedale; a daughter, Ladonna Lacks of Baltimore; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described some portions of Rebecca Skloot's book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." The Sun regrets the error.