Roland Pattillo was a well-known physician, researcher, and professor who made substantial contributions to gynecology, oncology and stem cell research.
He was also noted for his role with the HeLa cell line and his ties to Henrietta Lacks’ family, the lady whose cells changed biomedical science. Pattillo died at the age of 89 on May 3, 2023. But what caused his death? Here’s what we know so far.
Roland Pattillo Cause of Death
Roland Pattillo died of natural causes in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 3, 2023. He was accompanied by his family and close companions.
Many organizations and individuals honored Pattillo for his accomplishments and legacy. Throughout his career, he received numerous awards and honors, including the Medallion of the International Trophoblast Society, the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award, the Pioneer Award from the National Institute of Health for Frontiers in Stem Cell Research, the St. Louis University Diversity Award—Keynote Speaker, the St.
Louis University School of Medicine Merit Award 2, and Atlanta Magazine’s America’s Top Doctors List. In addition, he was featured in several books and documentaries about Henrietta Lacks and her cells, including The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, The Way of All Flesh by Adam Curtis, The Immortal Henrietta Lacks by Oprah Winfrey, and Henrietta Lacks: The Mother of Modern Medicine by the BBC.
Numerous individuals who knew or were inspired by Pattillo remembered him as a trailblazer, a mentor, a companion, and a hero.
He was described as a humble, compassionate, generous, and brilliant individual who devoted his life to advancing women’s health and preserving Henrietta Lacks’ legacy. His contributions to science, medicine, education, and social justice were also lauded.
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Roland Pattillo’s Early Life and Career
Roland Pattillo was born in a segregated community in Louisiana on June 12, 1933. He was the son of a blacksmith who had become a railroad worker. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Xavier University of Louisiana and a scholarship to St. Louis University’s medical school, where he studied under Edward Adelbert Doisy and George Gey.
After seeing the anguish of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951, Pattillo became interested in gynecology and oncology. Pattillo’s mentor, Gey, had removed a sample of Lacks’ tumor cells without her permission and discovered that they could grow in culture indefinitely.
These cells, known as HeLa cells, were the first immortal human cell line and were employed in a variety of medical discoveries, including the polio vaccine, gene mapping, and cancer treatments.
Pattillo went on to become a practicing physician and gynecology professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Later, he took over Gey’s reproductive tract cell bank and relocated it from Johns Hopkins to Morehouse School of Medicine.
From 1996 to 1998, Pattillo was the interim chair of Morehouse’s OB/GYN department, and she began sponsoring a women’s health conference in honor of the Lacks family (the HeLa Conference).
Pattillo also became close to the Lacks family, acting as a go-between for them and the numerous scholars and journalists who wanted to reach them. He assisted them in gaining access to knowledge regarding their mother’s cells and their significance to science.
He also fought for their acknowledgment and remuneration for their contributions to medical research. Pattillo wrote over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, as well as one book.
His studies and research were mostly about in vitro cell models with unique biomarkers. These models were then used in different types of experiments to test how well endocrine systems worked, how sensitive they were to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and how well they differentiated.
This research resulted in the discovery of the trophoblast stem cell and the first human hormone-synthesizing cell system, which scientists around the world were able to exploit to develop novel treatments for ovarian cancer. Pattillo retired from Morehouse in 2013 after working there for 20 years.