Pellissippi State: Son of Henrietta Lacks, subject of NYT bestseller, to speak at Convocation

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On Oct. 4, David “Sonny” Lacks will share what it meant to find out—decades after the fact—that the cells of his mother, Henrietta, were being used in labs around the world, bought and sold by the billions.

Sonny Lacks is the keynote speaker for the Convocation for the Common Book at Pellissippi State Community College. He speaks at 10:50-11:50 a.m. in the Clayton Performing Arts Center on the Hardin Valley Campus.

The story of the Lacks family was recorded by Rebecca Skloot in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the 2012-13 Common Book at Pellissippi State. The Common Book is required reading for incoming freshman and is the centerpiece for activities throughout the year.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” took more than a decade to research and write and instantly became a New York Times bestseller.

“We are delighted to have Sonny Lacks on campus,” said Anthony Wise, Pellissippi State president.” He puts a personal face on some big issues that will be discussed on campus this year.”

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells, taken without her knowledge in 1951, were discovered to be “immortal”: they can grow indefinitely and be frozen for decades, divided into different batches, and shared among scientists. Henrietta Lacks’ cells were coined “HeLa” by Dr. George Gey, a researcher and physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Her cells became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for development of the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization—yet for many years her family couldn’t afford health insurance.

The book will be used as a discussion springboard for such issues as the birth of bioethics, the history of medical research involving African-Americans and the legal battles over informed consent, says Carol Luther. Luther is a Pellissippi State English professor and the coordinator of Common Book activities.

Convocation for the Common Book is free, and visitors may park in any lot designated “Open.” To request accommodations for a disability, contact the executive director of Human Resources and Affirmative Action at (865) 694-6607 or

For information about Common Book activities, call (865) 694-6400 or visit