Bed-Stuy Library Celebrates Life of Woman Whose Cells Made Medical History

By Paul DeBenedetto on May 16, 2014 11:54am 

 The Macon Library will celebrate the life of Henrietta Lacks on Saturday and Sunday.
The Macon Library will celebrate the life of Henrietta Lacks on Saturday and Sunday.
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DNAinfo/Paul DeBenedetto and Brooklyn Public Library

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — A Bed-Stuy library known for helping locals trace their family roots will celebrate the life of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose rare regenerating cells have been used to advance medical research for the last 60 years.

"We Speak Your Name" is a two-day celebration of Lacks' life at the Macon branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at 361 Lewis Ave. It will feature a cultural "rites of return" ceremony, a q-and-a with her descendent and a panel discussion on race, class, gender and bioethics, organizers said.

The library hopes to teach people more about the life of the woman, rather than just the medical accomplishments made after her death, said Taneya D. Gethers, senior librarian at the branch.

"That's what we wanted to focus on," Gethers said. "Who this woman was, as a mother, as a wife, as a sister and friend, so we can reintroduce a side of humanity back to Henrietta Lacks."

The Virginia-born Lacks is famous for what's become known as the HeLa cell line, an immortal cell line taken from her body during a hospital visit in 1951.

Doctors found that the rare cells could be kept alive and grown, and it's since been used to help develop the polio vaccine, map genes and develop in vitro fertilization, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

That story fits well inside the Macon library, which houses the African American Heritage Center and a genealogy mapping program, which Bed-Stuy residents can use to trace their roots through the African diaspora.

"We've had a very good representation of that diaspora using that genealogy workshop," Gethers said. "It's definitely of great interest, being able to search for family roots and make that connection."

Lacks' medical advancements did not come without some controversy: Lacks' cells were taken without her consent and illustrate a troubling trend in scientific history, Gethers said.

The librarian drew comparisons to the Tuskegee experiments — in which the United States government injected syphillis into African Americans to test the disease's effects — and to Dr. J. Marion Sims, the "father of modern gynecology" who conducted experiments on slave women and whose statue Harlem residents are urging Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to remove at Fifth Avenue and East 103rd Street.

Gethers said she hopes the weekend can help spark a discussion on medical ethics, both past and future.

"Because those stories haven't been really publicly acknowledged, or we don't find them readily available in our history books, we don't know," Gethers said. 

"It's imperative for Henrietta Lacks' story to continue to be told so we can celebrate that history and learn from that history."

"We Speak Your Name" starts at 1 p.m. inside the library on Saturday with an "ancestral rites of return" ceremony, followed by a panel on cultural and ethical responsibility in medicine. A conversation and q-and-a with the Lacks family will be held Sunday at 2 p.m.

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