Kalamazoo has a link to an African-American woman who, involuntarily, contributed to seven decades of medical breakthroughs in cancer, AIDS, polio, even the coronavirus vaccine: Jermaine Jackson is a nephew of the late Henrietta Lacks. He recently completed a traveling exhibit about her.
Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Cells taken from a biopsy before her death are used in research to this day. But there's a huge message that Jackson wants the public to know about what's come to be known as the Hela cell line.
"You know, her cells were taken without her permission or consent,” Jackson says.
Jackson says he hopes his exhibit will also show that Lacks, who was a mother of five, is more than her cells. In addition to detailing the medical advances with which her cells assisted, the exhibit has family photos and seven pieces art about her. Some of that art was donated from an earlier exhibit that Jackson produced a few years ago for the Kalamazoo Public Library, where he works.
Henrietta Lacks was the sister-in-law of his grandmother, Bessie Lacks, who still lives in Kalamazoo; the women were married to brothers.
As a boy, Jackson says he grew up hearing his grandmother’s stories about how her late sister-in-law’s cells had done amazing things and they "stayed alive." He remembers being skeptical.
"I was real young, and there certainly were some things that I didn’t understand. It sounded like something out of a sci-fi movie.”
He says it wasn’t until the best-selling book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot, was released in 2010 that it became real to him.
Jackson had hoped to start showing his exhibit in person last March, but then the pandemic happened. So, for now, he's made a 15-minute video tour of the exhibit that he showed during a recent online presentation at the Western Michigan University School of Medicine.
You can learn more about the exhibit at the Facebook page for the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Traveling Museum.