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Remembering Dr. Roland Pattillo and His Quest to Honor the Memory of Henrietta Lacks

Story by Walter Ray Watson | NPR, All Things Considered

Dr. Roland Pattillo and Dr. Dan Ford
Dr. Roland Pattillo and Dr. Dan Ford

For decades, Dr. Roland Pattillo pushed to get Henrietta Lacks’ name in the public eye. Lacks was a young Black mother who died in 1951 and whose cells were harvested without permission. Her story was told in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” But a lesser-known figure in that history is a Black oncologist who was pivotal in bringing Lacks’ contribution to light.

Before there was a bestselling book, a movie or conferences, there was Dr. Roland Pattillo.

Since the 1960s, Dr. Pattillo treated patients and worked in labs. George Gey mentored him at Johns Hopkins. Gey was the biologist who cultivated Lacks’ cells in 1951. From Gey, Pattillo learned deeply about HeLa, the first successful human cell line to grow outside the body. Pattillo became a kind of gatekeeper to the Lacks family.

Dr. Daniel Ford runs the Institute of Clinical and Translational Research at Johns Hopkins. After learning about the book’s release, they launched the Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series. It was an opportunity for outreach, they took it. The Lacks family was welcomed, scholarships awarded. Rebecca Skloot was guest speaker. And Ford invited Dr. Roland Pattillo as well.

Ford shared, “I really struck up a long-term friendship with him. He has come to every symposium he could until COVID made us virtual, and even then, he participated.”

The full transcript is posted here. Listen to the audio below: