Dr. Roland Pattillo Dies: Oncologist Who Played Pivotal Role In ‘Henrietta Lacks’ Book & Movie Was 89

Roland A. Pattillo, the gynecologic oncologist who played a pivotal role in bringing the case of Henrietta Lacks to public awareness and was played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2017 HBO movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, died of Parkinson’s disease on May 3 at his home outside Atlanta. He was 89.

His death went largely unreported until recent articles in The Nation and The New York Times.

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Although the so-called “HeLa” cell line had been used since the 1950s for scientific research that helped develop the polio vaccine, HIV treatments and many other medical advances, the human source of the cell line – Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old Black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 – was largely unknown outside the medical community. In the 1990s, Pattillo made it his mission to celebrate Lacks and her immense contribution to medical research.

He started by finding and contacting Lacks’ surviving family members, including daughter Deborah Lacks, who, prior to her death in 2009, worked with author Rebecca Skloot on the 2010 nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Pattillo had introduced Skloot to the Lacks family, and provided guidance during the book’s writing.

The year the book was published, HBO announced that it had secured rights for a film version to be executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. The film, sharing the book’s title, was released in 2017, with Winfrey playing Deborah Lacks and Santiago-Hudson portraying Pattillo.

“He put our family on the map,” said Shirley Lacks, one of Henrietta Lacks’s daughters-in-law, in an interview with The New York Times. “If Dr. Pattillo hadn’t talked to Deborah, and Deborah hadn’t talked to Rebecca, the family would not have known as much about Henrietta’s life and her contributions to mankind. I thank Dr. Pattillo for just being there, especially for Deborah. He had a very calming spirit, but he was firm in his belief.”

Patillo joined Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine in the early 1990s, retiring in 2013. While there, he organized a symposium on the HeLa cells and dedicated it to Henrietta Lacks.

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