Personal Reflections on a 9/11 Hero

I originally wrote this remembrance of my high school classmate 10 years ago, on September 11, 2006, at Terra Sigillata on ScienceBlogs.com. It has appeared in various forms on several sites, but this is the only place where you can still share your comments.

 

Let me tell you about John Michael Griffin, Jr.

Griff, as he was known in high school, was a friend of mine.

Late in the first half of our lives, he stood up for me physically and philosophically, for being a science geek. John’s endorsement was the first time I was ever deemed cool for wanting to be a scientist.

Griff died an engineer and hero in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers five [15] years ago today.

We lost touch almost twenty years before, but his kindness and friendship formed not only one of the cornerstones of the scientific life I have today, but in the person and father I have become as well.

—–

At a northern New Jersey Catholic high school in a predominantly Irish town, being a gangly Polish boy from two towns over was not the formula to cultivate one’s popularity or self-preservation.

Throwing the curve in biology and chemistry classes didn’t help either, nor did being a David Bowie fan in a place where Bruce Springsteen was as revered as St. Patrick. That’s probably where the nickname, “Zowie,” came from – the name of the glam rocker’s first child.

Worse, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and being a year behind physically was not compatible with self-preservation during high school gym class.

But, it was a very simple gesture, sometime in junior year, when one of the packs of scoundrels had me cornered, slamming me against the wall and throwing my books down the hallway. I believe that the offense was that our biology teacher had taken to buying me a Pepsi every time I scored 100 on one of his exams, and I had been enjoying yet another one.

John, already well on his way to his adult height of 6′ 7″ or 6′ 8″, stepped in and said, “Hey, lay off of Zowie. He’s goin’ places.” And with that, the beatings stopped.

I didn’t play sports, at least not any of the ones offered by our school. At that time, soccer hadn’t taken off in the States but I was a huge player and had met John at Giants Stadium in the NJ Meadowlands where I had season tickets (Section 113, row 7, seat 26) for the relocated New York Cosmos. At just $4 a ticket for kids 16 and under, I could afford season tickets to see some of the greatest international soccer stars of the late 20th century: Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia, Yugoslavia’s Vladislav Bogiçeviç, and, of course, Brazil’s great Pelé.

All accounts of John as an adult include his devotion to the Giants, NY Rangers, and NY Yankees, but few recall those soccer days. John’s family were long-time Giants season ticket holders and probably got their Cosmos season tickets three rows behind me as some sort of promotional giveaway. I recall that John was surprised that a science dork such as I would be cool enough to know about soccer and come to games myself, my father dropping me off outside the gates so he could go home and watch his beloved football games.

But, we Jersey boys loved soccer at a school where American football and basketball reigned supreme. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the massive stadium during soccer’s American heyday of the late 1970s, with crowds of 50,000 – 75,000 that have yet to be matched today.

—–

Among John’s gifts was the ability to make anything fun and to make anyone laugh. I recall sitting with him in a ski lodge in Amsterdam, NY, as I was recovering from frostbite during an ill-prepared class trip ski weekend. He pulled me into an imaginary board game with a napkin dispenser, where he pretended each napkin contained a message as to how to proceed during each turn. We looked at each other in horror when the waitress came unannounced and cleared our table of the napkins.

As a teenager, John was a physical caricature, handsome but a goof, self-effacing but self-confident, and had a clever and caustic wit, both of which he carried into adult professional life and fatherhood. His 15 Sept 2001 missing notice in the Bergen (NJ) Record noted that schoolkids called him, “Barney,” to reflect how they flocked to his presence.

No one was safe from John’s good-hearted and bombastic comedy routines. My father was nicknamed, “Groucho,” by John due to the resemblance of his thick mustache to that of the 1930’s comedian – John would burst spontaneously into seemingly classic Marx Brothers riffs, but with the content imitating my father carrying on about some printing press mishap.

My last remembrances of John are half a life away, from the impromptu high school graduation party he called at my house to his pride at finishing his engineering degree and managing facilities for a million-square foot building in Manhattan.

Perhaps he protected me as a kid because he knew that way deep down, he was destined to become an engineering geek himself. And a hero, a much bigger hero, in protecting the lives of others in a very real way.

—–

On the glorious fall morning of 11 Sept 2001, I was fixing coffee for my wife who had been sleeping in when the newsreader on my pager announced that a jet had struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.

I had missed my recent 20-year high school reunion and had not known that John had only months before been appointed director of operations at the WTC by Larry Silverstein’s, Silverstein Properties.

I did not learn until two weeks later that John had facilitated the escape of dozens of workers, handing out wet towels so people could breathe on their way down the stairs. In the 102 Minutes book by New York Times writers Jim Lynch and Kevin Flynn, John is immortalized in the corroborated account of the elevator rescue of 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector, Tony Savas.

When he returned to 78, Greg Trapp saw a group of three Port Authority employees at work on the doors to the elevator where Tony Savas, a seventy-two-year-old structural inspector, was trapped. Trapp peered into the small gap and saw him, a man with thinning white hair, seemingly serene. One of the workers grabbed a metal easel, wedging the legs into the opening, trying to spread the doors from the bottom, where they seemed to have the greatest leverage. But their efforts had the opposite effect at the top of the doors, which seemed to pinch tighter.

At that moment, John Griffin, who had recently started as the trade center’s director of operations, came over to the elevator bank. At six feet, eight inches tall, Griffin had no problem reaching the top of the door to apply pressure as the others pushed from the bottom. The doors popped apart. Out came Savas, who seemed surprised to find Griffin, his new boss, involved in the rescue. Savas seemed exhilarated, possessed of a sudden burst of energy, rubbing his hands together, or so it seemed to Trapp.

“Okay,” Savas said. “What do you need me to do?”

One of the Port Authority workers shook his head. “We just got you out-you need to leave the building.”

No, Savas insisted. He wanted to help. “I’ve got a second wind.”

John and Mr. Savas stayed behind.

John’s wife, June, sweetheart of the class behind us, was quoted in John’s NYT, Portraits of Grief:

“He was at the back of about 30 people they were evacuating,” his wife, June Griffin, related from the accounts of survivors. “He had been in fires before — he should have gotten out.”

Mrs. Griffin speculated that her husband, instead of running for the exits, headed for the fire control center, where his training as a fire safety officer would have directed him. “He was an engineer,” Mrs. Griffin said. “He must have thought, ‘Buildings don’t just fall down.’”

John also left two daughters, both now teenagers, his parents, a younger brother and older sister, and literally hundreds of friends.

Not just any friends, either – anyone who knew John still says that when he talked with you, it was as though you were the most important person in the world.

—–

Leaving New Jersey in the mid-1980s and running on the tenure-track treadmill 1,600 miles away caused me to stop living life and lose track of a great many friends. I am deeply saddened not to have known John as an adult, a devoted husband and, by all accounts, a remarkable father.

Since John’s death, we’ve all found a little more time in our schedules to make time for one another. As the father of a little girl conceived in the months after the terrorist attacks, I try to respect June’s privacy and just send little gifts for the girls every so often. I cannot imagine how they and nearly 3,000 other families deal privately with the most public of tragedies.

I finally worked up the guts to go to Ground Zero [ten years and] two months ago for the first time. Despite all the bickering about what the memorial should look like, there is a small memorial area set up in the interim. John’s name sits at the top of one column of names on the placards commemorating those lost.

He’ll always be at the top of my list.

2012 Postscript

This picture also appeared in 2011 when John’s younger daughter, Julie, now 20, was interviewed for the Waldwick (NJ) Suburban News by Jody Weinberger.

Julie’s memory of the events that took place on 9/11 is spotty. She was a fourth-grader at Crescent Elementary School when relatives came to take her and Jenna home.

“It was kind of chaotic,” Julie recalls, sitting on a stool in her kitchen. “Even though people were saying things, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t know what terrorism was and not even adults could really grasp what was happening.

“My grandpa came up to me and told me bad people did something to where my dad worked and that’s all I could really grasp at the time.”

After discussing her father’s rescue of Mr. Savas, Julie shared more of her mixed feelings:

“But then I think he actually went back to help more people and I think that’s when the buildings collapsed,” Julie said. “I was kind of angry knowing that he went to go save other people instead of thinking about coming home to his family. That bothered me but now I know he’s a hero.”

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Julie thinks about just some of the many moments she’s missed not having her father around.

“People think that it’s just the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, and it’s true, those really are hard times, but every day [you have to] keep your head up and think positive,” she said. “It’s little things like learning how to drive and applying for college, or my first day of college that you just kind of wish he was there for, and you just have to keep going, I guess.”

Julie feels that by going after her dreams – which currently means graduating from the University of Tampa and pursuing a career in elementary education – she is making her father proud.

 

That Facebook post from June was from 2012. In 2013, we heard directly from Julie Griffin in a brave article she wrote for the national website of Kappa Alpha Theta, “Overcoming tragedy with the help of my sisters.”

 

Postscript – 2016

Next Friday, September 16, 2016, many of us are gathering at St. Mary High School in Rutherford, New Jersey for Griff Rocks On, an annual fundraiser to honor our fallen hero that provides tuition assistance for SMHS students in need. June, my sister, Sandi, and my classmates have formally established John Griffin 9/11 Foundation as a 501(c)(3) organization. We’d love to have any of you attend, celebrate John’s life and dance and sing to the B Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen cover band. Regardless, and if you’re so inclined, tax-deductible donations can be made to the Foundation at the PayPal button below. For more information, please visit GriffRocksOn.org.

griff-rocks-on-iv-2016

It’s time to move on, time to get goin’

So, readers know that I went out West this past weekend to visit colleagues at the University of Colorado, spend some thinking time at the southern Colorado ranchland endowed to us by the late PharmDad, and – most prominently – visit PharmMom and PharmStiefvater on the occasion of her 70th birthday. I’m extremely grateful to my wife, PharmGirl, MD, and the illustrious PharmKid for holding down the fort and handling the emotional and practical issues of the little genius starting 3rd grade on Monday.

When Mom told me she’d been following the aftermath of Pepsigate/sbfail, she asked, “So, what are you going to do about your blog?”

Yes, like Bora’s Mom, my Mom also reads my blog. And yes, my Mom is dialed into the unrest here at ScienceBlogs.

The weekend gave me some great opportunity to get back to my formative roots and have the clarity of the dry, high-country air where my brain seems to work a little better than the way it normally chugs along. I also won’t discount the soul-warming effect of sampling many bowls of New Mexican green chile.

As I watch so many of my friends leave ScienceBlogs, both for other venues and in holding patterns, I’ve asked myself about the purpose of remaining or leaving. One of the best parts of being at ScienceBlogs has been to form relationships with some incredible people, from great writers to great scientists, and often a mixture of the two.

My professional writer friends (you know who you are) were all uniformly kind in assuaging my concern that remaining here so long after the ethical breach of Pepsi buying their own blog did not necessarily mean that my own ethics were compromised. For your expert opinion, kind words, and supportive gestures, I am tremendously grateful.

And as has happened during much of my scientific career, some of the greatest guiding wisdom has come from a few British colleagues (I’ll name you if you’d like) who, again, I would not likely have come to know so well if not for writing at ScienceBlogs. The most useful advice was to not think about whether or not to leave ScienceBlogs but, rather, ask what I want the blog to be in a year or future years and where might I best achieve those goals.

Then my wife reminded me that she had been saying this all along.

Hence, the time has come for me to take leave from ScienceBlogs.

My reasons for doing so are manifold but you are certainly aware of my feelings regarding ScienceBlogs selling one of our competitive blogging slots to a multinational food and beverage company (here, here, and here).

I also won’t lie that while I was saddened to see all of my friends leave this network, it was the loss of Bora Zivkovic, PalMD, and Zuska that tilted me over the edge toward Bion’s Effect, so eloquently discussed the other day by Bora. Each of these people have become among my best friends – not just online friends but real life friends. Each has been a source of strength and encouragement and has in their own way helped me through various life challenges. They are not the only ones of my online community to do so, but their cluster of departures is a bellwether.

However, the primary reason for my leaving now is the thinking I’ve done about the future.

That future is not at ScienceBlogs.

I have to thank Katherine Sharpe because without her, I would not have been here for the last four years, one month, and thirteen days. Katherine was community manager of ScienceBlogs for the second round of bloggers who joined the original 14 hand-picked by Christopher Mims. After only five months of blogging at my old Blogger site, I received a letter of invitation from Ms. Sharpe (on my birthday!) to join ScienceBlogs. Others in that position have subsequently been a great influence – Virginia Hughes, Arikia Millikan, Erin Johnson – but Katherine will always have my gratitude, and respect for her own writing prowess, for seeing in my writing something that this larger audience might enjoy.

Even before the invitation, it was my surgical oncology colleague, Orac at Respectful Insolence, who encouraged me in this endeavor, gave me great advice on considering the invitation to join ScienceBlogs and, like Bora, linked to me very early at my Blogger site and gave me the early visibility that I believe caught Katherine’s eye. Orac has subsequently been a steadfast supporter with a multitude of links of a consistency paralleled only by the support of my family.

There remain today a core of people in whom I find mutual support and camaraderie both within and outside the ScienceBlogs platform (yes, outside SB who had never joined the network 🙂 ). The list would be too long to note here but the wisdom of Janet Stemwedel stands above all – and I think many of my colleagues would consider the same in their own cases. A member of the original ScienceBlogs class and my own daily read before the network existed, many of us considered Janet our den mother. As a fellow Garden State native, Janet was responsible for my Sb pledge name, “Exit 153A.”

In addition to Janet, my colleagues who are also women – Zuska, Tara Smith, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Alice Pawley, Anne Jefferson – (as well as PhysioProf, remarkably) have helped me understand my blind spots as a white man and learn what it really takes to be an ally in promoting and sustaining women in higher education and the academy. Their continuing liberal arts education is deeply appreciated.

DrugMonkey and my other neuropharmacology blogger colleagues have also been remarkably supportive in my dabbling with CNS pharmacology as a function of my broad interests and sense of responsibility in serving as an ambassador for natural products and the field of pharmacognosy.

But the most numerous thanks go to you – The Reader. Without you, there would be no thanking of anyone else. The referrals from my friends probably got you here but I am grateful that you find it valuable to spend five or 10 minutes here everyday (or every few days). Your lurking readership and/or participation in the discussions on our comment threads is what has made the Terra Sigillata community one of few places where you can get what I hope is straightforward, objective information on drugs – botanical, non-botanical, prescription, and over/under-the-counter – that guide you through a world so fraught with market-driven information across the spectrum from dietary supplements to, yes, prescription drugs.

And at home, I really must thank my wife, PharmGirl, MD and the outcome of what actually began as a scientific relationship, our daughter, PharmKid. Besides supporting me in this hobby that has become more serious over time, my wife was the first to believe in my intelligence and capability to communicate, thereby cultivating the confidence I needed to open my mind and keyboard to each of you. In many cases, the topics you read about here were seeded by late-night e-mail referrals during her bouts of insomnia. She knows the topics that motivate me and, just as she can pick off a new restaurant menu what I will order, she knows what stories will coax me into a post for you.

While I am obviously grateful for my scientific colleagues and writers within and outside my field who come to read, I am especially indebted to those of you who are not scientists but who come here to learn and ask questions, maybe even be empowered in your own health or in pursuing your own future directions. Preaching to the choir certainly has value in galvanizing the science communication community. However, I can’t think of a single science blogger who doesn’t view this exercise as a form of outreach – to share and demonstrate to our constituents, the humble taxpayers, that what we are charged to do for world health is well-spent and communicated in an objective and approachable manner.

Come to think of it, my time at ScienceBlogs has been nearly the very same four-plus years it took to complete my Ph.D. work at the University of Florida, largely funded for by the taxpayers of that state. Gainesville was also home to Tom Petty and most of the members of his band even today, The Heartbreakers. Their song on Wildflowers was the inspiration of the title of this farewell post (but I prefer the version covered by my musical mentor I spoke of Saturday, Jon Shain, on his previous album, Army Jacket Winter.

It’s time to move on, it’s time to get goin’
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, grass is growin’
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get goin’

And, indeed, I have no immediate plans to do anything but take up a simple WordPress blog at abelpharmboy.wordpress.com. So, please update your links and RSS feed accordingly as that’s where I have also archived all 1,167 posts written since 9 June 2006. I’ll also contribute on occasion to Science-Based Medicine but probably only on a monthly or bi-weekly basis.

Of course, venturing into the great wide open gives me the “nauseous adrenaline” Petty cites therein.

So if anyone wants to procure the services of an able farmboy, contact me via Gmail at abelpharmboy and we’ll set for a spell out on the front porch and discuss propositions over a couple of tall glasses of iced sweet tea.

In the meantime, I hope y’all will excuse me.

It’s time to get goin’.

07.17.10 Sunset on East Spanish Peak.jpg

The setting sun provides contrast on the faces of East Spanish Peak as taken from a little piece of heaven in Huerfano County, Colorado, 17 July 2010. Photo ©2010 by the blog author.

Bora leaves ScienceBlogs with superb history and analysis of science blogging

With great sadness, I announce that my colleague, Bora Zivkovic (aka Coturnix), is departing from ScienceBlogs.
However, his long-awaited analysis of the Pepsigate #sbfail episode is superb and he provides an unparalleled history of science blogging, its relationship with the legacy media, and his views of the future. He ends on an optimistic note, so I hope that his leaving the network is a GoodThing for both him and his family.
Bora has been and will continue to be a great blog mentor. I am most fortunate to know him in real life as well.
I can’t help thinking that this is another nail in the ScienceBlogs coffin. I hope I am proven wrong.

Happy Birthday, PharmMom!

70th bday art for Oma cropped,jpg.jpg
Pardon me for taking up science blogging space today to send out special wishes of love and congratulations for my Mom on the occasion of her birthday-of-special-note.
The artwork provided by her granddaughter above (©2010 PharmKid) contains a subliminal message about the significance of today’s birthday. I will have the pleasure of delivering the original work of the artist to the birthday girl this weekend.
For those of you who don’t know PharmMom, she’s nothing short of incredible having raised my sister, then deciding when we were in elementary school that she wanted to serve the greater good as a registered nurse, earning an AA degree while she also worked nights in the ER.
She closed the books on a three decade career in nursing a couple of years ago and retired with my stiefvater to Santa Fe, Mew Mexico. She worked in emergency medicine, urology, cardiac intensive care, and completed her career working in clinical trials coordination for patients with HIV/AIDS. She continues to do health screening in her new community for the Lion’s Club and other organizations.
Being a parent now give me even more appreciation for how hard this must’ve been for her to be so dedicated to her patients and be a great Mom, involved in our activities and pushing us academically.
Mom’s also a 26-year breast cancer survivor and her example – and personal cancer pharmacology experience – led me to pursue my career in cancer research. Much of what I am today is due to her example of strength and persistence.
So, Happy Birthday, Mom! I can’t wait to see you!

Thanks a million!

In the midst of all of the PepsiCo #SbFAIL events of the week (here and here are my two contributions), I totally missed checking in on my blog traffic statistics this week. But every Saturday morning I get my weekly e-mail report from SiteMeter, the service I use to track how y’all get to the blog, what search terms you use, etc.
One Million Pageviews.jpg
Yes, sometime during the week we drew our one millionth pageview since starting up here at ScienceBlogs four years ago last month. It’s small potatoes compared with other bloggers at the network, some of whom draw a million page views every two weeks or two months. But your support and readership is greatly meaningful to me, even more so after this week of intense self-examination of why I blog and why I blog here.
No need for any congratulations but I would be appreciate if you’d go over to my post asking about you and your interests so I can be responsive to what you find useful and not-so-useful here.

Block party

I just walked outside my little dead-end neighborhood of 17 or so houses, almost exactly the number of my childhood neighborhood in northern New Jersey.
The houses and lots are a little bigger since money goes further in North Carolina. And yeah, sure, a state professor’s salary is a bit better than that of a printing press mechanic or registered nurse in the 1970s.
But there is a huge hole in my 4th of July experience.
There are no kids riding on their bicycles with American flags taped to their handle bars, ever the risk of poking out one’s eye – something that could probably get a parent in trouble with child protective services these days.
There are no kegs of root beer for the kids and Schaefer or Rheingold for the adults. Or kids pouring Rheingold into their root beer to hide their subversive behavior that the parents knew about anyway – stuff that would definitely get a parent in trouble with child protective services these days.
No Dads uncarting the huge blocks of ice from someone’s beat-up pickup truck to cool the beer and soda.
No one setting up the volleyball net in “The Court” – a place that we’d call a “cul-de-sac” today.
No Moms carrying huge bowls of potato salad and cole slaw up the street.
No Moms yelling, “What the hell’s the matter with you!?!,” at their kid – or someone else’s kid – who just set off a pack of firecrackers at 9 am.
There is no smell of hot dogs and hamburgers grilling or kielbasa and corn-on-the-cob boiling.
Or my Dad’s amazingly kick-ass Manhattan-style clam chowder, a recipe learned from my grandfather.
My other grandparents won’t be picking me up later to take the subway to the Bronx to go see my first major league baseball game: the Yankees playing the Washington Senators at the old, original, unrenovated Yankee Stadium.
My sister is not dressed up as The Statue of Liberty.

What does it take to knock off K2 Spice readership?

Just the other day, I wrote about how DrugMonkey and I have experienced unprecedented and sustained blog traffic for posts we wrote in February on K2 Spice, one of a couple of marijuana-like “incense” products still sold legally in the United States.
Every morning, I dial up my SiteMeter blog statistics and take a look at what posts readers first land upon when coming to visit the humble world headquarters of Terra Sigillata.
Last week, 2,700 to 2,800 of the 4,000 most recent hits were landing on our February K2 Spice post. (You will also note below the sad state of my readership in that posts on Stiff Nights erectile dysfunction supplement and Horny Goat Weed products are the next most popular direct hits.)
Finally, one post has knocked it out of the top spot after nearly four months:
Monday’s post about the memorial unveiling of the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks this past weekend.
Henrietta Lacks knocks off K2 Spice.jpg
I have been completely overwhelmed by the interest in this story. This widespread attention would not be possible without the Facebook and blog referrals by author Rebecca Skloot, The New York Times Science page, and the enthusiastic Twitter referrals by other writers who I respect greatly such as David Dobbs, Sara Goforth, Mike Rosenwald, T. DeLene Beeland, Ted Winstead, scribbler50, Eric Ferreri, – as well as the dozens of you sci/med bloggers and folks from other walks of life who found this post worthy of recommending to your friends.
Please accept my apologies if you were not mentioned by name – I don’t have Bora Zivkovic’s flair for aggregating and linking to every referral but you have my gratitude for further popularizing the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family.
And for those of you so inclined, here are images of the memorial program that weren’t included in the last post:

Continue reading

Marking the magnificent memory of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks gravestone 05.30.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
In addition to my own photos herein, Tom McLaughlin posted a nice slide show of the day at his South Boston News & Record.


Despite two trees that snapped and fell in my driveway within six feet of my car in an impressive thunderstorm Friday evening, I drove on Saturday morning to Clover, Virginia, for the dedication of a gravestone that finally marks the final resting place of Henrietta Lacks, a concrete honor, if you will, to recognize the source of one of the most valuable medical tools of the 20th century and today.

For those who are not regular readers, Henrietta Lacks was a rural tobacco farmer, mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend from southern Virginia who developed an unusually aggressive case of cervical cancer while living in Baltimore in 1951. While being treated at Johns Hopkins University, surgeons excised pieces of her tumor in an ongoing effort by the laboratory of Dr. George Gey to establish a continuously growing human tumor cell line in culture, a feat that had only been previously accomplished with mouse cells. Ms. Lacks’s cells are today known by the name, HeLa (hee-luh), and have been used from the fifties in testing the effectiveness of the original Salk polio vaccine up through today providing the basis for the new cervical cancer vaccines. I would not be overstating the case to say that most biomedical scientists have at one time or another worked with HeLa cells.
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 250px.jpgHowever, the identity of Henrietta Lacks as the unknowing donor of the cells that gave rise to so many medical discoveries – a poor Black woman, mind you – as well as the story of her family and their travails at the hand of the medical establishment had largely gone untold until the 1980s, even among scientists themselves.

But with the help of the family – especially Henrietta’s late daughter, Deborah – scientists, historians, and her own tenacious investigative skills, journalist and author Rebecca Skloot spent the last ten years researching and gorgeously crafting a book on the HeLa story that has become this year’s best-selling non-fiction gem, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. If you have not yet read the book, you are missing out on what Dwight Garner of The New York Times called, “one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.”

A black woman, a white boy, and a PhD
My own interest in the story extends beyond my general fascination with the history of science and medicine. It is far more personal.

As I wrote in November on the 20th anniversary of my PhD dissertation defense, HeLa cells were the primary experimental system for my study of the anticancer drug target, DNA topoisomerase IIα. Moreover, HeLa cells were also the source of genomic DNA I needed to understand the enzyme’s regulation when I started my own laboratory in 1992. They ended up providing the topic of the first published paper from my independent group: me, my first PhD student, and first technician.

So when I learned that from the South Boston (VA) News & Record that the Lacks family had planned a memorial dedication service for Ms. Lacks’s headstone, I just had to attend.

The headstone was provided by a Morehouse School of Medicine donation from Dr. Roland Pattillo and his wife, Pat. Dr. Pattillo is an ob/gyn physician-scientist at the Morehouse School of Medicine who has largely been the medical guardian of the Lacks family and who provided the entré to Ms. Skloot after she convinced him of her sincerity in telling the story of the family and their matriarch. Pattillo is also himself a notable scientist of historic stature and a living connection to Dr. George Gey. Among his own four decades of accomplishments, Dr. Pattillo worked at Hopkins with Gey in the sixties on the hormonal aspects of neuroendocrine tumors and, as detailed in a 1968 Science paper, established the BeWo choriocarcinoma cell line, the first immortalized line to produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). hCG is the hormone produced by the placenta that is detected in clinical and home pregnancy tests.
Kroll Pattillo 05.29.10 002 copyright David J Kroll.jpgTo the right is Dr. Pattillo at the gravesite with an unnamed science blogger showing off his 20-year-old dissertation. To the right are two Lacks family members sharing addresses on top of Skloot’s book. You’ll note that the gravestone is also in the shape of a book, representing the many stories that have come from the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.

The service began at St. Matthew Baptist Church in Clover, the church where Henrietta had been a member since 1932. My intention had been just to drive up and quietly pay my respects, maybe even get a photo of my dissertation at Henrietta’s gravesite. Such intentions were derailed by one of the nice usherette ambassadors at St Matthew who asked if I was a dignitary (no) but then insisted that I sit with the press and go have a word with the pastor, Reverend Alfred Chandler.

Reverend Chandler then asked that I speak to the standing room-only congregation that included dozens of Lacks family members about how my personal and professional life had been touched by the woman from Clover. Time was set aside for friends and family to share such brief reflections.

Just as an aside: I’ve now lived in the South for a third of my life. For the last ten years I’ve lived in a town with an equal 45% African-American and White population and am a prof at a historically-Black university. It never ceases to amaze me how warmly welcoming the Black community has been to me, everywhere from Virginia to Florida, and in a manner that belies the converse treatment of the community for centuries. In fact, if I could join a Black congregation, I’d probably still be going church.

I was beaming when I learned that the first scripture reading was the famous Ecclesiastes passage (3:1-8) upon which Pete Seeger wrote Turn! Turn! Turn! (The song was made popular by The Byrds in 1965 and discussed on this blog, with a Byrds reunion performance, here.). In the context of the other speakers, it was clear that this day was one to heal, build up, laugh, dance, and, most certainly, a time to embrace – I haven’t been hugged so much since my last visit with my large family from New Jersey.
Kimberley Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgOpening words on behalf of the Lacks family were offered by Kimberley Lacks, daughter of Sonny Lacks, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks. Kimberley stressed a major point that Skloot’s book did so extraordinarily well: for us to remember that her grandmother was a real woman who worked in the fields, cooked, danced, and wanted the world for her children like any other parent.

Kimberley then expressed the families gratitude for those who did just that, first and foremost thanking Rebecca Skloot for her ten-year journey with the family and scientists worldwide to bring the Henrietta Lacks story to the attention of all people, not just us in science and medicine.

Then, Kimberley said something I want all writers to know:

“Thanks to the media for bringing the story of Henrietta Lacks to the world.”

I joked with the writers and TV folks there as to when the last time was that they were expressly thanked for their work. But remember this, my journalism friends: you do make a difference. Because of this essential role you play in society, we just have to figure how to make the profession more financially viable for as many of you as possible in the new media landscape.

I had the distinct pleasure of being seated next to Attorney William Bryant Claiborne and his wife. Attorney Claiborne is a proud graduate of Virginia State University, a superb HBCU in Petersburg, and then earned a law degree at the University of Virginia. His colleagues thought he was out of his mind to come back to his rural home to practice but he reminded me that his home folk need legal services just as badly as those in Richmond and DC. Mr. Claiborne certainly walks that talk – also serving on the Halifax County Board of Supervisors. In this capacity, he presented the Lacks family (below) with a resolution honoring Henrietta Lacks, saying “we are so proud she lies in our county.”
Claiborne Halifax Co resolution 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
A rare experience for a scientist
While anxiously reflecting on the comments I was about to give, I recalled the fact that I felt embarrassed that my dissertation included nothing more about HeLa cells than the paragraph excerpted in this post, and certainly nothing about the woman from whom the cells were derived. Twenty years later, this is an even more glaring omission. So, I used the opportunity to thank the family for the gift of their matriarch. While I couldn’t change the past treatment of the family, I can play a part in moving forward and was therefore honored to be asked by Rebecca Skloot to serve with Dr. Pattillo on the board of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to bring scholarship support to today’s young descendants. (Rebecca is donating a portion of book proceeds to the Foundation.)

And I didn’t even think about this until I was standing before the congregation – I told the family that I would be honored for them to sign my dissertation because this PhD work was as much theirs as mine.

I also had a few other things to say regarding the impact of HeLa cells on me personally and professionally and on other scientists and physicians around the world and how literally world-famous Henrietta Lacks is now. This gift of their matriarch, through her own suffering, has facilitated our efforts to relieve the suffering of literally millions of other people. The use of HeLa cells (and other cell lines overtaken by HeLa cells) led to the development of some drugs that treated my own mother who was stricken with a lymph node-positive breast cancer when I was a junior in college, stimulating me to become a cancer researcher and allowing her to now be a 26-year breast cancer survivor.

I was also sure to address the young people in the audience, family and otherwise, to encourage them in science and medicine and offered our them an open invitation to visit with us in our laboratories and classrooms in the Research Triangle area.

These words got some applause and a few Amens and “Praise Jesus!” – affirmations and feedback that we rarely get in the context of university auditoriums and seminar programs. Knowing more about the Black church since moving to the South makes these affirmations even more meaningful.

I do not yet have the writing skills to adequately express how moving this experience was for me to have the opportunity to face the family and express my gratitude that the life I have today – the wife, daughter, house, guitars – stems from a story of injustice across the decades. Because of today’s clinical guidelines for anonymizing human tissue specimens, we most often have no idea as to who exactly provided the biological research tools we use in the laboratory. But to be hugged by Sonny Lacks and literally and philosophically embraced by so many of the family is an experience I will never forget.

And now that several dozen members of the Lacks family have autographed and inscribed my dissertation, it somehow seems more complete.
Veronica Spencer inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
Jackson inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg

Many of the family also put in their telephone numbers, quite ironic knowing how difficult it was for Rebecca to even get family members to return her phone calls for the first couple of years of her writing.

The guest speakers that followed were uniformly outstanding beginning with Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the Halifax NAACP chapter. Rev. Ronnie Womack, mediator of the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, gave us some of the most motivating old-time preaching, stressing that the day was one for unification – implying, to me at least, that we were there to recognize that the gift of a Black woman has impacted the lives of all racial and ethnic groups – and “that when CNN rolls across the bottom of the screen that a cure for cancer has been found,” that Henrietta Lacks will be part of that story.

The highlight for many of us was when Dr. Roland Pattillo took the pulpit to humbly note his role in the day and the generosity of he and his wife in providing the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks together with the Morehouse School of Medicine. In noting that over 60,000 peer-reviewed publications have made use of HeLa cells, Pattillo told us that even today, another such paper is published at a rate of one every two hours. Dr. Pattillo is deserving of his own blog post and I look forward to telling more of his story.

At the other end of the spectrum was the next speaker, a remarkable young man, freshman congressman Rep. Tom Perriello (I can say that because he’s about a decade my junior). An undergrad and law graduate of Yale University, this native of Virginia’s 5th district reflected on his work in West Africa where polio continues to afflict millions despite the millions saved in Western nations thanks to the role HeLa cells played early in vaccine development. Perriello excerpted a resolution he read into the Congressional Record last Friday honoring Henrietta Lacks (“Honoring Henrietta Pleasant-Lacks” full text and PDF).

As a side note, I drove past many advertisements for his Republican opponent, Robert Hurt, that read, “HURT U.S. Congress.”

My immediate thoughts were, no thank you – you’ve hurt it enough already.

Perriello is an energetic politician who causes Republicans to froth because of his dedication to the military, international relations, workforce development, and establishment of faith-based aid groups while also putting forth such heresy and tyranny as affordable health care and asking his campaign workers to also “tithe” hours on community service projects unrelated to the election. His district runs from the North Carolina border to north of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, where his support is quite strong. I took it as a compliment that Rep. Perriello stopped me afterward to say I’d make a good politician – if it meant being like him, I would.

Reverend Alfred Chandler then closed with words that I think we can all do well to remember – that when we see someone in our community and feel an urge to pass judgment, bear in mind that we have no idea as to that person’s story.

Gravestone dedication
We were then off to the Lacks family cemetery on the property of the old home-house down Lacks Town Road, an absolutely beautiful stretch of rolling farmland. The photo below was taken looking south from the intersection of Mt. Laurel and Lacks Town Rd.
Mt Laurel and Lacks Town Rd 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpg
Elsie Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgAbout 100 people remained from the church service to dedicate the Henrietta Lacks gravestone just to the left of that of her mother, Eliza Pleasant. Another gravestone also being dedicated was that for Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter who died at age 15 at the Crownsville State Hospital, known then as The Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. The story of Elsie and the visit there by Rebecca and Deborah Lacks has been cited by many as one of the most emotional parts of Skloot’s book.
Sonny and PRM Forester 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll.jpgWith all of the press attention, Sonny Lacks made it a point to introduce to all NPR “Butch” Forester, the groundskeeper who maintains the previously overgrown Lacks family cemetery in its now peaceful and reverent state.
I also had the chance to walk over to the home-house where Henrietta, her husband David, and children lived. It’s tougher to see now than in the winter due to the trees and undergrowth but you can get a better glimpse of it from the photos then at Rebecca Skloot’s website.

And before heading back on the road, the church and family had a nice repast dinner with fried chicken, green beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, meatballs, rice, and – nom! – chocolate cake.

Put simply, this was the single most moving day in my life as a scientist.

A roundup of press cover of the Henrietta Lacks headstone memorial dedication:
Lauren Compton and her videographer from WSET-TV in Lynchburg
wrote this article and filed a segment from the station having only an hour to get back to the studio, thereby missing the repast. Beyond being a superb reporter, Ms. Compton did not have to refer to the songsheet to sing the words to the hymns.

I had a lovely time chatting with Denise Watson Batts of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot who wrote “After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone.” Denise also had an excellent interview earlier this month in Baltimore with Sonny Lacks, eldest brother, Lawrence, and cousin Sadie Grinnan.

A superb writer, editor, and a fine gentleman, Tom McLaughlin, wrote this nicely detailed article for his South Boston News & Record. Although the press took numerous photographs at the services, only Tom put up a slideshow of 49 photos within that story. Tom and his mother, Sylvia O. McLaughlin, editor of the News & Record, are extremely proud of their newspaper and readers know that I am a huge fan of local news. The level of detail that local writers and publishers puts into such stories (or should) reminds us of the importance of sustained local reporting. I’m grateful to Tom and his Mom for sending me home with a few issues of their paper that covered Skloot’s book and the Lacks family stories. Tom’s own review of the book speaks from the viewpoint of a Southside Virginia native.

Tim Saunders from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, birthplace of Henrietta Lacks filed this article and video, “Halifax County community pays tribute to world famous native,” today.

A brief note appeared on June 1 on the website of Essence magazine.

Many thanks also go to Melissa Bell from The Washington Post and graduate of Northwestern University School of Journalism who patiently listened to my stories and whose work I look forward to reading.

I also want to publicly thank my lovely wife, PharmGirl, MD, and the illustrious PharmKid for understanding how much being away for this event meant to me. As always, I was on science time and a quick “couple of hours” trip took all of Saturday, a holiday weekend day we really needed to spend together after I’ve been out of town and away for other university events.

Writing to publish vs. writing to be read

I’ve often remarked that the beauty of this blog is that more people read here every day than I would reach in even the largest class I teach. Moreover, far more people read this blog than will ever read my peer-reviewed scientific publications. And that’s even considering that we have very modest traffic numbers here for ScienceBlogs.com. Of course, Terra Sig readers are very discriminating – and good-looking, erudite, and probably even smell good, too.
This morning, my Twitter feed brought me a post from the blog, University of Venus, as referred to me by HASTAC Director of New Media Strategy, Ruby Sinreich. (Local readers will recognize Ruby as the far-better half of Carrboro Creative Coworking founder and new media god, Brian Russell, and mother of Izzy.)
Mary Churchill wrote a post there entitled, “Why Do Academics Write?,” a common theme that has emerged in her recent off-blog conversations. Therein, she muses about writing narrow academic books for promotion and tenure that appeal to the select elite in your field versus writing for a broader audience, in her case, on the University of Venus, “a collaborative blog venture bringing together the voices of GenX women in higher education across the globe.”
For those of us in the sciences whose productivity is measured in peer-reviewed research manuscripts, one can ask why we write blogs. Personally, I enjoy the conversation with all of you, fellow scientists as well as folks far afield who happen to be interested in science and drugs. The blog also allows me to explore outside of my field – cancer research – and learn more about such areas as neuroscience and geology and even further to music, history, and, yes, writing. Through this community I’ve also been able to continue my education by learning about issues of gender and racial and ethnic diversity in both the sciences and society. I definitely feel more well-rounded as both an academic and a human being by writing here and engaging with this community. And I am still learning.
As for the argument that blogging is a waste of time and a distraction – well, I may spend about an hour a day writing and give up watching one episode of NCIS. Maybe an additional sporadic half hour doing literature searching, scanning news articles, and reading the writing of others I enjoy and respect or those they recommend.
I’ve also found the blog to be valuable academically, especially in teaching, as a place I can go back to for lecture topics complete with images and links and notes about papers I have read. Comments and related links offered by readers allow me to learn even more because these suggestions come from people who are expert in those fields. Plus, I can also find information on my blog much easier than I can in my file cabinet.
But I’m more interested in why those out there who must write professionally also write for fun, because you want to, not because you have to. I’m not looking only for comments from bloggers but also from those of you who might write poetry, curate a discussion group.
So, why do you write when you don’t have to?

Postdoc precipitates DNA, exposes Colorado Rockies logo ripoff to Woody Paige

Last Monday marked 17 years since Eric Young led off the first Colorado Rockies baseball game with a home run that triggered a collective, mile-high orgasm for the 80,227 spectators gathered in the old Denver football stadium.
The advent of the expansion Rockies also launched a Pharmboy laboratory birthday celebration week tradition marked by two days off: one for a lab ski day in the high country followed later in the week with a Rockies game and the finest handcrafted ale offered by Denver’s Wynkoop Brewery. I was reminded of this by my Twitter buddy, Mike Smith (@M1k303) who taunted me a couple of days ago with this picture from Loveland Pass during his trip to Arapahoe Basin.
The beauty of Denver at this time of year is that many ski areas are still open and often get considerable fresh snow. However, the prices drop by 50%, enabling a then-young assistant professor to treat the lab to lift tickets. But down in Denver, one could often wear shorts for baseball’s opening week. Uhh, you still had to prepare for snow down there as well, but never mind.
The Youngstown Connection
In the summer of 1991, said assistant professor was still a postdoctoral fellow and the announcement of the Denver Major League Baseball franchise was tarnished by a bit of a pissing match among the ownership team that became known as The Colorado Baseball Partnership. In 1990, Denver voters had passed a 0.1 sales tax increase for construction of a new baseball stadium if the city was awarded one of the two new National League expansion teams first proposed in 1985.
But putting the money together to launch the team was a bit of a problem. Then-Governor Roy Romer called a meeting of parties interested in joining the leadership team and, if I recall correctly, said that he asked those gathered, “What’s your name and how much money do you have?”

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