Deborah Lacks

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 Rebecca 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.

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Rebecca Skloot

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.

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Henrietta Lacks

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.

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George Gey

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.

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David “Day” Lacks

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.

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David “Sonny” Lacks Jr.

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.

Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joe Lacks)

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.

Lawrence Lacks

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.

Bobette Lacks

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.

Elsie Lacks

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.

Sadie Sturdivant

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.

Howard Jones

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.

Richard Wesley TeLinde

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.

Mary Kubicek

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.

Margaret Gey

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.

Roland Pattillo

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.

Christoph Lengauer

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.

Gary Lacks

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.

Michael Rogers

A journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. 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.

Hector “Cootie” Henry

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.

Victor McKusick

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.

Susan Hsu

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.

Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield

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.

Gladys Lacks

Gary’s mother and Henrietta’s sister. She disapproves of Henrietta’s marriage to Day.

Chester Southam

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.

Emanuel Mandel

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.

Stanley Garter

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.

Samuel Reader

The owner of Microbiological Associates who created the first for-profit cell distribution center.

Monroe Vincent

Samuel Reader’s business partner, a researcher.

Cliff Garrett

Henrietta’s cousin who shows Skloot the graveyard where Henrietta is buried.

Tommy Lacks

Henrietta’s grandfather, a tobacco farmer and patriarch of Lacks Town.

Fred Garret

Henrietta’s cousin who encourages Henrietta and Day to move to Baltimore.

John Moore

A cancer patient who attempts to sue his doctor for patenting his cells without permission.

Michael Gold

Author of Conspiracy of Cells who publishes details about Henrietta’s medical records without the Lacks family’s permission.

James Pullum

Deborah’s second husband, a preacher.

Courtney Speed

The owner of Speed’s Grocery in Turner Station, a community organizer who attempts to set up a museum dedicated to Henrietta Lacks.

Alfred “Cheetah” Carter

Deborah Lack’s first husband who beats her.

Albert Lacks

A white slave owner who leaves his property in Clover to his Black descendants, thus creating Lacks Town.

Johnny Pleasant

Henrietta’s father, who abandons his ten children after the death of Henrietta’s mother.

Eliza Pleasant

Henrietta’s mother, who dies giving birth to Henrietta’s younger sibling.