Daughter of Henrietta Lacks. Deborah longs to know more about her mother and understand what happened to her. After years of mistreatment and miscommunication from reporters and doctors alike, the mystery around her mother’s cells causes Deborah severe health issues. As a result of these negative experiences, she is initially hesitant to trust Skloot. Due to a deep desire to understand, Deborah ultimately throws herself into the investigative process and makes herself an invaluable resource for Skloot’s research. Though she couldn’t pursue a formal education, she dedicates herself to pursuing the truth for herself and the next generation of Lackses.
The author and narrator of the book, a freelance journalist researching the story of Henrietta Lacks. As she befriends the Lacks family through her work, she strives to find a way to tell Henrietta’s story without causing further harm to the family.
A young black woman diagnosed with cervical cancer whose cell sample becomes the famous HeLa cell line. In life, she was known for being generous and caring. Not wanting to worry her family, she tries to hide the severity of her illness until she can no longer conceal the debilitating pain caused by her tumors. Her family doesn’t learn that her cells are still living and being used in research until twenty-five years after her death, leading to confusion and anger.
The head of tissue culture at Johns Hopkins in 1951, a scientific pioneer whose work creates the HeLa line. Gey prioritizes science over profit. He gives away samples of HeLa to any researcher who asks and even hesitates to publish articles about his work. However, his single-minded focus on research isn’t without consequence. Gey takes and distributes Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge or consent, a violation for which the Lacks family still harbors great resentment.
Henrietta’s husband and cousin, a poor steel worker. Henrietta and Day grew up on the same tobacco farm with their grandfather, Tommy Lacks. Although Day is unfaithful in marriage, he cares for Henrietta and blames Hopkins for her death. He fears going to the doctor after he learns about Henrietta’s cells because he believes they will use parts of him for research too.
Henrietta and Day’s middle son, the peacemaker of the family and the first Lacks sibling to meet with Skloot in person. He tries to convince Zakariyya and Lawrence that they can not stop Deborah from wanting to learn more about Henrietta.
Henrietta and Day’s youngest son, an angry man whose issues get him into legal trouble multiple times. Violently abused and isolated by a caretaker from a young age, Zakriyya has a tendency to lash out at the people around him. He goes to jail for murder, but the judge gives him a lenient sentence based on his understanding of Zakariyya’s history and psychological trauma.
Henrietta and Day’s oldest son, and the only child with memories of Henrietta. Lawrence is furious over what happened to Henrietta and tries to discourage Deborah from talking to anyone about HeLa. He talks often about suing Hopkins.
Lawrence’s wife who eventually takes Sonny, Deborah, and Joe in, and encourages Deborah to protect herself and stay in school. She is stern and opinionated, and doesn’t trust white medicine because of its history of experimentation on black people.
Henrietta and Day’s older daughter, who has mental disabilities, deafness, and seizures, and is institutionalized. She has a special bond with Henrietta, and Henrietta visits her weekly until Henrietta becomes too sick.
Henrietta’s cousin and good friend who used to go dancing with her. When Henrietta first notices her tumor, Sadie is one of the first people she confides in. She has fond memories of Henrietta.
Henrietta’s gynecologist who sees her through treatment to the end. He has insisted numerous times that the medical care Henrietta received was the same as any white patient could expect. An admirer of George Gey, he helps pen the first article that includes Henrietta’s full name.
A doctor at Johns Hopkins, an expert on cervical cancer who wants to prove that non-invasive cervical cancer often becomes invasive. His research requires cell samples from both infected and healthy cervical tissue, which leads to Gey taking tissue samples from Henrietta.
Gey’s assistant, who cultures Henrietta’s cells. She realizes the gravity of her work when she assists with Henrietta’s autopsy and notices her painted toenails. The image of Henrietta’s red toenails brings home the reality that the cells she cultures are from real people.
George Gey’s wife, a nurse who pioneers his sterilization techniques. Her stern and meticulous nature means she often writes and submits Gey’s written work for him.
The professor of gynecology at Morehouse Medical College. Patillo organizes the symposium on Henrietta Lacks and first puts Skloot in touch with the Lacks family. He worries for the welfare of the Lackses and so takes the time to quiz Skloot on her knowledge of scientific racism.
A researcher at Hopkins who reaches out to the Lacks family in order to show them HeLa cells. Unlike other researchers, Lengauer approaches the Lackses with compassion and respect, even admitting Hopkins’ wrongdoing. He explains the science to Deborah and Zakariyya and promises to answer future follow-up questions.
Deborah’s cousin, a deeply religious man who believes he could channel God when called upon to do so. He performs a soul-cleansing ceremony on Deborah to relieve her of the burden of the cells, which he gives to Skloot.
A journalist for Rolling Stone. He is the first person to alert the Lackses to the fact that people are profiting from HeLa cells, and his article on their family guides Skloot’s research.
Henrietta’s cousin. He is very religious and believes that Henrietta’s cancer isn’t a natural occurrence, but created by spirits or by doctors.
A geneticist at Hopkins who asks for blood samples from the Lacks family for research. He refuses to explain genetics to Deborah, and instead gives her an autographed copy of his book.
McKusick’s post-doctoral student who takes blood samples from the Lacks family. Because English is her second language, and she is given little direction, she fails to communicate clearly with the Lacks family, who doesn’t understand.
A smooth-talking con artist who pretends to be a lawyer in order to scam money from the Lacks family. He attempts to sue Hopkins and the Lackses for refusing to allow him access to Henrietta’s medical records. His manipulative behavior causes fear and stress for those involved.
A cruel woman in Turner Station who is jealous of Henrietta. She moves in with Day after Henrietta’s death, and heaps emotional and physical abuse on the Lacks children, especially Zakariyya.
Ethel’s husband who sexually assaults Deborah and threatens her boyfriend.
Gary’s mother and Henrietta’s sister. She disapproves of Henrietta’s marriage to Day.
A cancer researcher who injects patients with the cancerous HeLa cells without their consent. He justifies his research with the belief that disclosing his injections will only confuse and frighten his patients.
Director of Medicine at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in 1963. He allows Chester Southam to inject patients with HeLa cells and bullies the doctors who object, causing them to resign.
The researcher who identifies that most human cell cultures are contaminated with HeLa cells by noticing specific genetic markers exclusive to African Americans. He is unknown in the field at the time, and bravely shares his findings at a conference.
The owner of Microbiological Associates who created the first for-profit cell distribution center.
Samuel Reader’s business partner, a researcher.
Henrietta’s cousin who shows Skloot the graveyard where Henrietta is buried.
Henrietta’s grandfather, a tobacco farmer and patriarch of Lacks Town.
Henrietta’s cousin who encourages Henrietta and Day to move to Baltimore.
A cancer patient who attempts to sue his doctor for patenting his cells without permission.
Author of Conspiracy of Cells who publishes details about Henrietta’s medical records without the Lacks family’s permission.
Deborah’s second husband, a preacher.
The owner of Speed’s Grocery in Turner Station, a community organizer who attempts to set up a museum dedicated to Henrietta Lacks.
Deborah Lack’s first husband who beats her.
A white slave owner who leaves his property in Clover to his black descendants, thus creating Lacks Town.
Henrietta’s father, who abandons his ten children after the death of Henrietta’s mother.
Henrietta’s mother, who dies giving birth to Henrietta’s younger sibling.