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Remembering Dr. Roland Pattillo and his quest to honor the memory of Henrietta Lacks

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For more than a quarter century, the Morehouse School of Medicine has held a conference named for Henrietta Lacks. She 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. NPR's Walter Ray Watson has this remembrance.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: Before there was a bestselling book, a movie or conferences, there was Dr. Roland Pattillo.

REBECCA SKLOOT: He was the first person to utter the phrase, thank you, Henrietta.

WATSON: That's Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks."

SKLOOT: And he was also the first person to ever say I'm sorry for your suffering to members of her family. He was the first person to recognize that they were suffering.

WATSON: 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. When Rebecca Skloot reached him about writing her book...

SKLOOT: I thought I was writing a book about Henrietta and the cells.

WATSON: He grilled the writer. Over several phone calls, they talked about health disparities, race in America and what the Lacks family had endured. She got homework. Once cleared to meet the daughter, Deborah, Skloot geared up to write a far more complicated story, largely because of Pattillo. The book was a bestseller in 2010. An HBO movie in 2017 starred Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks and Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS")

ROSE BYRNE: (As Rebecca Skloot) When I finish it, do you want me to send it to you, or do you want me to come down and read it?

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Deborah Lacks) Only certain parts. I've been thinking about going back to school.

DANIEL FORD: Dr. Pattillo has really kept the story of the Henrietta Lacks HeLa cell alive.

WATSON: 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: 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.

WATSON: Roland Pattillo started a forum in honor of Lacks many years before Hopkins. The HeLa Women's Health Symposium at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta was likely the first to raise awareness of the Lacks story and spotlight research and health disparities. It turned 25 last year. Dr. Cheryl Franklin is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Morehouse School.

CHERYL FRANKLIN: He was just a gentle giant in the truest sense of those words.

WATSON: Franklin, like many of her colleagues, remembers Pattillo as a mentor whose empathy was always on display with patients, faculty and students. HeLa cells are instrumental in the development of countless medical breakthroughs, from a vaccine for polio to, most recently, playing a role fighting COVID-19. Dr. Pattillo pushed for gratitude for Lacks, but he did more. Pat O'Flynn Pattillo was married to her husband for 27 years. Speaking from her suburban Atlanta home, she says he worked with the HeLa cell line but started two more in his career.

PAT O'FLYNN PATTILLO: Dr. Pattillo always talked about his JAR - J-A-R - cell line and also his Ca Ski cell line.

WATSON: The Ca Ski cell line, like the HeLa cell line, contributed to the human papillomavirus vaccine in use today. Pat Pattillo marvels at all that he did, and recalls her husband's struggle with the illness that claimed his life last May at 89.

O'FLYNN PATTILLO: I think only as I have seen him with Parkinson's and seeing him locked in the disease when his mind was still so clear and so brilliant and so ready still to work.

WATSON: Last week, the 26th annual HeLa Symposium was held in Atlanta...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Behind every person is someone else pushing them along.

WATSON: ...The first without Dr. Roland Pattillo.

Walter Ray Watson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Walter Ray Watson is a senior producer for NPR News.