The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Character List

Henrietta Lacks/Helen Lane/Loretta Pleasant

The subject of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Henrietta was a Black American woman from Virginia whose cancerous cells were harvested unbeknownst to her during a surgery. Her cells became the HeLa immortal cell line, and their contribution to scientific research is considered unparalleled. Henrietta was born in 1920 and died in 1951 after suffering from cervical cancer. Henrietta was a generous, popular, and lively woman (she was born Loretta Pleasant).

Rebecca Skloot

The author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the narrator of the book. She is a science journalist. She first learned about Henrietta in a community college biology class, and from then on was fascinated by Henrietta’s story. She is able to create a fuller picture of the history of the HeLa cell line by interviewing Henrietta Lacks' surviving relatives. She also tries to defend their interests and uplift their perspectives, which have often been ignored or forgotten by science.

David ‘Day’ Lacks

Henrietta’s first cousin and her husband until her death in 1951. He cheated on Henrietta and was not a protective father to his children. When Rebecca Skloot meets him, he is an elderly man with a number of health problems.

Deborah "Dale" Lacks

Henrietta’s fourth child and the one most concerned and curious about her mother’s life and legacy. In the beginning of Skloot’s investigation, Deborah did not trust her, but eventually the two women became close friends and allies. Deborah accompanied Skloot on her investigative trips, and supported the crafting of Skloot’s book until her death in 2009. Deborah was strongly committed to her mission of discovering the truth about her mother’s life and eventual immortality.

Lawrence Lacks

Henrietta’s oldest child, and the quintessential protective older brother. He and his wife Bobbette saved his younger siblings from the abusive care of Ethel and Galen. Rebecca Skloot must meet with Lawrence first and gain his approval before the other siblings will agree to work with her.

Margaret and Sadie

Two sisters, Henrietta’s cousins, and the first people Henrietta confided in when she began to notice her cancer symptoms. During Skloot’s investigation, they are the ones that tell her intimate and not widely known details about Henrietta’s life. After radiation treatments, Henrietta would often go to Margaret's house. Years later, they speak of Henrietta was great affection.

Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman/ Joe Lacks

Born Joe Lacks, Zakariyya changes his name after converting to Islam during a stint in prison. He is Henrietta’s fifth and youngest child (she is diagnosed with cervical cancer shortly after his birth) and the meanest, bitterest of them all. He is raised by a horrifically abusive cousin until Lawrence and Bobbette intervene. Zakariyya flits in and out of prison for most of his youth. Near the end of the book, he gets to learn about the significance of his mother’s cells, and this brings him some solace.

Howard Jones

The gynecologist who first diagnosed Henrietta’s cervical cancer. He is the person who establishes for the public the connection between Henrietta and the HeLa cells. He is an accomplished gynecologist.

Eliza Lacks Pleasant

Henrietta’s mother, who died when Henriette was four.

Johnny Pleasant

Henrietta’s father. He left his ten children when their mother died.

Tommy Lacks

Henrietta’s grandfather. After the death of her mother, Henrietta is sent to live with her grandfather and grandmother. He raised both Henrietta and Day.

Chloe Lacks

Henrietta’s grandmother.

‘Crazy’ Joe Grinnan

Henrietta’s cousin who was madly in love with her. Joe tried many times to pull Henrietta away from Day, and even tried to commit suicide a few times when she rejected him.

Lucile Elsie Pleasant/Elsie Lacks

Elsie was Henrietta’s second child, born with a few birth defects. She was deaf, epileptic, and could not speak. Henrietta loved her dearly but had to send her to the Maryland Hospital for the Negro Insane because caring for Elsie became too much. After Henrietta’s death, no one visits Elsie at the hospital, and she dies a few years later due to the horrible hospital conditions.

George and Margaret Gey

The Geys are the people who discovered the immortal quality of Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells, and the people responsible for the initial distribution of HeLa throughout the world. George was the head of tissue research at Johns Hopkins and Margaret was his wife and research assistant. They, like so many other doctors and scientists in the story, do not have Henrietta’s consent and do not even inform Henrietta of her the incredible secrets of her cells. However, they do not make money off of their distribution of her cells, instead concerning themselves with enabling scientific research.

Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr.

Wharton is the doctor who performed Henrietta’ cancer treatment surgery, and the person who collected the first samples of Henrietta’s cancerous cells.

Mary Kubicek

Kubicek was one of the Geys’ lab assistants, and the first person to successfully make a HeLa cell culture. She is also one of the few people who think of Henrietta as a person, and not just a source of miraculous cells.

Ethel and Galen

After Henrietta’s death, her cousins Ethel and Galen move in with Day to help care for the Lacks children. Ethel physically abuses the children, particularly Zakariyya, while Galen molests Deborah. Lawrence and Bobette eventual step in and rescue the children, but most of the damage had already been done.

Roland Patillo

Patillo is a professor of gynecology at Morehouse College, and the person who connects Skloot to Henrietta’s family. He was one of George Gey’s only African-American students. He feels a connection to Henrietta and organizes a yearly HeLa conference at Morehouse in Henrietta’s honor.

David “Sonny” Lacks Jr.

Sonny is Henrietta’s second child, and in the beginning is Skloot’s main contact with the family. He suffers from numerous health issues, and is a symbol of the terrible irony surrounding Henrietta’s story: she has contributed so much to medicine, yet her children cannot get adequate medical care.

Courtney ‘Mama’ Speed

Mama Speed is a keeper of the articles and documentaries produced about Henrietta. She is a single mother and community activist, and tries to raise public awareness about Henrietta’s contributions to science and medicine as a way of discussing the Black American experience. She is also the owner of Speed’s Grocery and has organized an effort to build a Henrietta Lacks museum.

Bobette Lacks

The wife of Lawrence Lacks, and the person who sets into motion the rescue of the Lacks children from Ethel and Galen. She advocated for Henrietta's children and took them in when they were being abused. She is deeply protective of Henrietta’s memory and legacy, and is the first person from Henrietta’s family to learn about her connection to the HeLa cell line.

Cliff Garnet

One of Henrietta’s cousins, Cliff grew up with Henrietta. They worked in the tobacco fields together, and were general like brother and sister. He shows Skloot Henrietta’s unmarked grave near Lacks Town.

Carlton and Ruby Lacks

The oldest white Lackses still living in Clove. They refuse to talk about their Black relatives, but ironically insist that this doesn't make them racist.

Lord Keenan Kester Cofield

Cofield is a charlatan with a very distant (and rightfully contested) connection to the Lackses who attempts to sue John Hopkins on the family’s behalf. In the beginning, Cofield’s involvement is desirable to the Lackses, but he soon reveals his crooked ways and tries to sue the family. Cofield’s deception and betrayal make the Lackses even more paranoid than they were before.

Christoph Lengauer

Lengauer is a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins who gives the Lacks family a portrait he made of Henrietta’s chromosomes, and invites them to the labs to finally see for themselves Henrietta’s incredible cells. He feels grateful to Henrietta and her family for her unwitting but life-changing donation, and deeply regrets how they were taken advantage of.

Gladys Lacks

Henrietta’s sister, who disapproved of Henrietta’s marriage to Day. Despite her frequent conflicts with Henrietta, she still took care of her sister as she suffered from her illness.

Albert Lacks

Henrietta’s white great-grandfather. He had five children by a former slave named Maria and left part of the Lacks plantation to them. This section became known as “Lacks Town.”

Alfred “Cheetah” Carter

Deborah’s first husband. The marriage was abusive and ended in divorce.

Alfred Jr.

Deborah and Cheetah’s firstborn child and Little Alfred’s father. He gets into a great deal of legal trouble as a young man.

Davon Meade

Deborah’s grandson, who often lived with her and took care of her.

Fred Garret

Henrietta’s cousin, who convinced Day and Henrietta to move to Turner Station.

Gary Lacks

Gladys’s son and Deborah’s cousin. A lay preacher, he performed a faith healing on Deborah.


Deborah and Cheetah’s second child; Davon’s mother.

Reverend James Pullum

Deborah’s second ex-husband, a former steel-mill worker who became a preacher.

Alexis Carrel

French surgeon and Nobel Prize recipient who claimed to have cultured “immortal” chicken-heart cells, which was later revealed to be a fraud. He was also a eugenicist and a believer in unscientific ideas such as telepathy.

Chester Southam

Cancer researcher who conducted unethical experiments to see whether or not HeLa could “infect” people with cancer. He injected sick people with cancer cells without their knowledge or consent. His experiments are considered a major example of the violation of medical ethics.

Christoph Lengauer

Cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins who helped develop FISH, a technique used to detect and identify DNA sequences, and who reached out to members of the Lacks family.

Emanuel Mandel

Director of medicine at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital (JCDH) who partnered with Southam in unethical experiments.

Leonard Hayflick

Microbiologist who proved that normal cells die when they’ve doubled about fifty times. This is known as the Hayflick limit.

Richard Wesley TeLinde

One of the top cervical cancer experts in the country at the time of Henrietta’s diagnosis. His research involved taking tissue samples from Henrietta and other cervical cancer patients at Johns Hopkins without their consent. Despite not giving informed consent, he attempted to give his patients high-quality treatment.

Stanley Gartler

The geneticist who dropped the “HeLa bomb” when he proposed that many of the most commonly used cell cultures had been contaminated by HeLa. This meant that a great deal of medical research was essentially useless, and did not make him a popular fellow in professional settings.

Susan Hsu

The postdoctoral student in Victor McKusick’s lab who was assigned to make contact with the Lackses and request samples from them for genetic testing without informed consent. Because she does not speak fluent English, she terrifies Deborah by making her think that she is undergoing cancer tests.

Victor McKusick

Geneticist at Johns Hopkins who conducted research on samples taken from Henrietta’s children without informed consent to learn more about HeLa cells.

Walter Nelson-Rees

The geneticist who tracked and published the names of cell lines contaminated with HeLa without first warning the researchers he exposed. He became known as a vigilante.

Howard Jones

Henrietta’s gynecologist at Johns Hopkins.

John Moore

Cancer patient from Seattle who unsuccessfully sued his doctor and the regents of the University of California over the use of his cells to create the Mo cell line.

Michael Gold

Author of A Conspiracy of Cells. He published details from Henrietta’s medical records and autopsy report without permission from the Lacks family, which upset Deborah deeply.

Michael Rogers

Rolling Stone reporter who wrote an article about the Lacks family in 1976. He was the first journalist to contact the Lackses. He published his first two books n his early twenties and is generally considered to be a prodigy.

Ted Slavin

A hemophiliac whose doctor told him his cells were valuable. Slavin founded Essential Biologicals, a company that sold his cells, and later cells from other people so individuals could profit from their own biological materials.