The Immortal Life of Dr. Roland Pattillo

The Immortal Life of Dr. Roland Pattillo

The Immortal Life of Dr. Roland Pattillo

The man who preserved the legacy of medical hero Henrietta Lacks died in May, but big media missed the story. I couldn’t.


Recently I had a strange dream. I was introducing my late mother’s Milwaukee oncologist to someone I can’t remember.

(You know, dreams.)

My mother’s doctor’s name was Roland Pattillo. Please remember that.

Everything I said in the dream was true: Dr. Pattillo saved my mother’s life—or at least gave her three years more with her family than her previous oncologist told us she had. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970, at 40, she had recurrence after recurrence, and was given six weeks to live in mid-1973. That’s when she began seeing Pattillo for experimental immunotherapy treatments. She lived until April 1976. I took some afternoons off during my junior year of high school to drive my mother and her friend who also had late-stage breast cancer, another suburban white lady, to their appointments at Milwaukee County Hospital, where most patients were Black, as was Pattillo. And in the dream, I shared that he always came out to see me, every appointment, to ask how I was doing.

Then I started crying, in my dream and when I woke up, too.

Honestly, no one was asking me how I was doing while my mother was dying. But Pattillo’s care for our whole family was always palpable.

I couldn’t sleep after that, and I went to Google. I’m sort of embarrassed, but what else do you do? I couldn’t call my dead parents.

It turned out that Pattillo had died—four months earlier, so this wasn’t exactly a premonition dream.

But it was a powerful dream nonetheless, because I wound up commanded to tell you this story, after I found no major obituaries about him, only two articles the Milwaukee Community Journal, a small Black paper published by his wife, Pat. I stayed up all night. I searched and searched. I knew that in addition to his job treating patients as an oncologist, he contributed to the advances in medicine driven by so-called HeLa cells, taken from indigent Black Baltimore cervical cancer patient Henrietta Lacks, by Johns Hopkins University in 1951. She died, leaving five children, at the age of 31. Cells removed from her cervix were the first ever discovered to be able to live outside the body.

When he learned that her family was denied information about their mother’s amazing contributions to science—HeLa cells helped map the human genome, and led to vaccines or treatments for polio, influenza, HIV, HPV, Parkinson’s disease and ultimately the Covid vaccine—Pattillo worked to get it for them, as well as some financial remuneration. For all of this, he was a major character in Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as the film that followed. Oprah’s movie opens with his character.

I could not believe there wasn’t more news about his death, and his life. So this is what I want to tell you.

I don’t know why I picked up Skloot’s 2009 book, except I heard it was good. I was blown away when in the early pages, there was Dr. Roland Pattillo. He is the gatekeeper to the Lacks family, who puts Skloot on the spot about her whiteness—she was from Portland!—when she first approached him wanting to write a book about Henrietta. Nevertheless, impressed by her passion and her knowledge about the way medical science had abused Black people, but also unfailingly kind, he connects her with Henrietta’s children.

Of course I remembered him, but I was ashamed to know nothing about his storied medical history. He began premedical studies at historically Black Xavier University in New Orleans in 1951, the same year Henrietta died. As a young researcher at Johns Hopkins, and one of the first Black doctors there, he worked with the legendary George Gey, the first doctor who received the cells removed from Henrietta and used them to advance his cancer research. Much like Skloot, Pattillo became captivated by the story of the young African American mother who gave so much to science, whose name wasn’t publicly known at the time. Partly to keep her family from finding out the truth, since no one had consented to having her cells removed and studied, Hopkins researchers said the HeLa cells came from a woman named Helen Lane.

I didn’t know about his research at the Medical College of Wisconsin and at Milwaukee County Hospital on the HeLa cells—the work he was interrupting when he gave my mother and her friend their immunotherapy treatments. But that’s what he was doing. He moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta’s historically Black Morehouse College, where he directed its gynecology oncology division and continued his HeLa research, and worked at Grady Memorial, the public hospital in downtown Atlanta, running its gynecological oncology unit.

Maybe as important, he took on a third job: ministering to the Lacks family and trying to get them the recognition and justice they deserved. Henrietta’s bereaved children had been traumatized first by the loss of their mother, and then by the mystery of what became of her cells, which they had to learn for themselves in bits and pieces. Some of them worried that if her cells were still “alive,” Henrietta was trapped in a zombie, undead state, maybe even suffering, as doctors injected her cells with some of the worst diseases known to humanity. Most were devout Christians, for whom such a limbo state was unthinkable when their mother clearly deserved to rest in heaven. All of them were tortured by the fact that pharmaceutical companies had gotten rich from their mother’s cells, while much of the family couldn’t even afford health insurance.

So, after I read The Immortal Life, I tracked Pattillo down at Grady Memorial. He was still treating patients, most of them poor and Black. Still doing research. And still finding time for me.

He greeted me in the universal hall of hospital linoleum outside his office and took my hands in his again.

“I see your mother’s beautiful face in yours. She’s here with us!”

When we sat down in his office to talk, he beamed at me and continued. “I can still see your mother’s wonderful smile, and I can still see her cells in my microscope. She had such energy!”

I felt a little bit like a white and privileged version of the Lacks children, bereft and confused almost 40 years after my mother died, still seeking answers about her illness and death. To keep from getting too personal, and emotional, I ask him why he thought the story of Henrietta Lacks has resonated so deeply. I’d read interviews with him in which he talked about this: about the way her story crystallized the awful treatment of Black people by society and by science, but also represented our readiness to reckon with that history. I expected those sociological explanations—but I don’t get them.

“It’s Henrietta’s spirit—maybe you would say her energy—her cells are part of so many people around the world.” He looks around the room and smiles. “She’s still with us.” I suddenly remember that he’s a devout practicing Catholic, as were my parents. I am a very lapsed Catholic, but I find myself believing him. Since HeLa cells are still alive, that meant Henrietta Lacks was still alive. And although those cells aren’t present in any of the common vaccines created thanks to insights they provided, she lives on in all of us who’ve been helped by them nonetheless. Which included me. Which linked me to my mother. Who is, thus, also immortal.

Pattillo paused to make sure I’m ready to take in something he needs me to know. “Your mother is part of this work, you know, the way Henrietta is,” he continues. “We didn’t get all the way there, but she was part of the work.”

Now I’m in tears, and his eyes are wet, too.

We stayed in touch. I went to his retirement party, from Morehouse University, in 2013. It was on the weekend of his annual HeLa conference, held to remember Henrietta Lacks and also mark her latest contributions to science. “She was a wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, a force of nature, a force that when we look under the microscope, we see disease, but we see the genome, we see predictions of the future, improvements in the way we treat patients,” he said at the conference opening. Some of Henrietta’s family was there. I was honored to be there too and get to meet them. At the reception after the conference, Pattillo tapped his forehead gently, as if to awaken from a dream, as he listened to someone read a tribute letter from then-President Barack Obama. “Wow,” he mouthed silently, as his wife Pat squeezed his knee. “Wow.”

But he lived at least an hour outside Atlanta—which if you know Atlanta, can mean at least two hours—and I’m ashamed to say I never saw him again.

We talked on the phone occasionally. He was proud of buying a headstone for Henrietta’s unmarked grave in Clover, Va. Although she lived for a long time in Baltimore—that’s how Johns Hopkins wound up with her amazing, immortal cells—Clover, where she grew up, was where she was happiest. He talked about restoring her house in Clover, a former slave cabin that still partly stands.

And then he called in 2021 to tell me he had Parkinson’s disease. “I’m OK. I’m really doing well. I just wanted you to know.” I said I’d come down, and he told me not to; we could talk on the phone again. I still can’t believe I didn’t visit, given how much he meant to me. Personally, but in a political way too. I confronted medical inequity directly for the first time in Milwaukee County Hospital, a young, relatively privileged white woman (who was losing her mother at 17) among the city’s struggling. The uncomfortable plastic cafeteria chairs and the harsh lighting and the universal hospital linoleum were an unmissable contrast with the loveseats and dark wood and subdued, respectful lamps in the plush medical suites of my mother’s doctors downtown.

I would sit there alone while my mother and her friend endured their treatment, watching a stoic parade of mainly Black people force themselves into chemotherapy, or, like me, force themselves to sit and wait for loved ones they knew would be sicker after treatment so that someday, God willing, they might be well. I recognized the differences between us, but I also also recognized the folks left behind in the waiting room with me as kin. Sometimes they’d smile at me as I read or did my homework, and I’d shyly smile back.

Pattillo found time to come out and grab my hands and ask me how I was doing, and he did the same for all the waiting Black families. It was my first experience being a “minority.” But I didn’t think about it that way at the time. I just knew we were all suffering in plastic chairs, together.

When I went to Google that night and saw that none of the giants of media—not The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, not even The Atlanta Journal Constitution or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel—printed anything about his death, I felt bereft again. And also angry at the media, again. What have we become? All the big outlets have multiple reporters covering the latest Trump idiocy and the Hunter Biden nonsense. Is nobody tuned into what matters?

The New York Times occasionally publishes belated obituaries of important people their cramped news judgment missed at the time. It’s called “Overlooked,” and it’s usually about people long dead. I hope this will help them find space for Dr. Roland Pattillo. Whether or not they do, he’s already immortal.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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