Finding Fame While Losing Credibility

Finding Fame While Losing Credibility

The Rochester Music Hall of Fame 2018 induction ceremony. was a night to honor Rochester ‘greats’. Paul Simon dropped in to help celebrate. [Photo: Lauren Peace, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle] See Paul Simon’s Strange New Batch Exceeds All Expectations

by Michael J. Nighan

Although they can be considered a significant indicator of our individual and group cultural priorities, I’ve always had a problem with Halls of Fame.  Whatever the type of Hall (historical, academic, social, athletic, etc.) or whoever is selecting those to be included (a committee or a public vote) once the obvious candidates have been inducted, future picks inevitably are a mixed of who’s currently popular combined with the  biases and knowledge base of those doing the picking.  To that point, a recent action by the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, and an on-going inconsistency in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame’s selection process, seem to me to epitomize this problem which serves to undermine each Hall’s credibility.

Fame may be fleeting, but obscurity is forever” goes the old cliché’.  Over the years the role of the Hall of Fame has evolved in an attempt to address both halves of that equation.  Originally established to commemorate and perpetuate the fame of those commonly accepted as being “great”, Halls have now begun expanding their role to become a kind of teaching machine, seeking to bring to public attention individuals who made significant (or what their selectors view as significant) contributions of one kind or another but who, for one reason or another, have disappeared under the historical radar, failing to become household names.

But this process also poses a dilemma for the Halls.  If they don’t keep inducting new members they risk being viewed as static, stale and stodgy and risk losing public support.¹ So once the above-mentioned obvious candidates have been inducted, the criteria for selection tend to be redefined.  As a result, as the degree of subjectivity used to evaluate a candidate’s accomplishments increases, the degree of importance of those accomplishments is likely to decrease.  Or at least become more controversial.

                         National Women’s Hall of Fame

“You measure the size of the accomplishment by the obstacles you have to overcome” – Booker T. Washington


To me, a criteria change was clearly in evidence recently when the National Women’s Hall of Fame announced their 2020 inductees.  These included Henrietta Lacks, selected for a contribution to medical science in which she had no active role, no knowledge of any role, no obstacles to overcome.  Indeed, the event(s) cited to justify her induction did not take place until after her death.

As background, Henrietta Pleasant Lacks was an African-American woman born in Roanoke, VA in 1920.   Raised in border-line poverty on her grandfather’s small tobacco farm, she eventually married David Lacks and, with their children, moved to Maryland in 1941.  On January 29, 1951, suffering from severe abdominal pains, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins, the only hospital in the Baltimore area which accepted African-American patients where, following a biopsy, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.  During subsequent radium treatments, and without her knowledge and consent, tissue samples containing her cancer cells were removed.  Lacks died on Oct. 4, 1951 and was buried in an unmarked grave in a Halifax County, VA cemetery.  Knowledge of her exact resting place has since been lost.  But her cell samples remained in the lab at Johns Hopkins.

Henrietta and David Lacks

When those cells began to be used in research projects it was discovered that they possessed unique physical properties.  Specifically, a significantly longer life span than most cells, coupled with an ability to rapidly reproduce.  Combined, these characteristics led to the cells –  named “HeLa” after (He)nrietta (La)cks –  have become the gold standard for cellular research because they can be regarded as effectively “immortal”.²

Over the decades, in excess of 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been grown and sent to research labs around the globe, used as the basis for more than 80,000 research articles or studies and 17,000 patents, and becoming the basis for major medical breakthroughs.  For example, Jonas Salk used the cells in his development of a polio vaccine.  In 1955 they became the first human cells to be successfully cloned.  In addition to being a staple in cancer research, HeLa cells have been used in AIDS and Parkinson’s disease studies and used to test the effects of radiation, toxic substances and even cosmetics on human tissues.

HeLa Cells – Photo courtesy ATCC

On the negative side, the Lacks family was not made aware that their mother’s cells had become a research tool until 25 years after her death.  And over the years, the use of her cells has led to increased questions about the ethics of hospitals and research labs using samples taken from patients without their knowledge or consent, particularly when those samples are then used for purposes unconnected to the patient’s treatment and are even, as in the case of HeLa cells, “manufactured” for sale.

While there can be no debate of the importance of HeLa cells in medical research, the question has to be asked whether the cells’ importance justifies formal recognition of Henrietta Lacks by a national Hall of Fame.  Although Lacks has previously been honored by other organizations, to my mind the National Women’s Hall of Fame’s standards should be higher and harder to achieve than those of more local groups.  If an individual has no active role in an event; was never asked to take a role in the event; and in fact was never aware that the event had taken place; are they entitled to recognition by a national Hall of Fame  because of the subsequent positive results of that event?

Does not setting a woman whose contribution to society was involuntary and passive on an equal footing with women who dared and planned and strove for years to achieve their goals serve, to a large extent, to undermine and even trivialize the significance of being inducted as a member of that select group?

Or let’s look at that question in another way.  If something is taken from your home without your knowledge, say a garden hose, and years later that hose is used to put out a house fire and save lives, are you entitled to be credited for the result?

Add to this the question of consistency.  If the benefit to humanity resulting from Lack’s unplanned and unknowing role warrants her recognition by the National Women’s Hall of Fame, then shouldn’t other women benefit from that same standard?  Can it be disputed that there must be scores or even hundreds of women who over the years have made major contributions to the advancement of medical science by the results of the tests they have knowingly or unknowingly undergone?

Or take another example. Under the Lacks standard, can it not be argued that mothers should be inducted into the Hall of Fame if their children made a significant contribution to society?  Surely consistency dictates that Mary Ball Washington, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Lucy Read Anthony and Harriet Bailey, and in fact the mothers of ALL great Americans, be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame under the Lacks’ criteria where recognition is awarded based of an inadvertent positive result rather than the intention or objective of the participant?

                       Striking a Sour Note at the  Rochester Music Hall of Fame

This question of consistency leads to a similar and on-going conundrum at the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.

When established in 2011, the Hall, whose mission ostensibly is to, “recognize those with ties to Rochester whose talents, efforts, perseverance and creativity have contributed to the creation of musical excellence”, included in their charter class, the performances given in Rochester in 1851 by the “Swedish Nightingale”, soprano Jenny Lind.  Note that it was her performances, not the artist herself that were honored.  Lind of course had no other, “ties to Rochester”.

Eagle Hotel – Where Jenny Lind stayed during her visits to Rochester

Interestingly enough, in the succeeding nine years, no additional artist’s performances have been inducted into the hall. On the classical front, the Rochester performances by such world-renown singers/musicians/composers as Enrico Caruso, George Gershwin, John McCormack, Gustav Mahler, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Yo-Yo Ma have been ignored.³  Doubly interesting is that, despite inductions by the Hall having been heavily, almost absurdly, weighted in favor of rock, blues and jazz (21 of the 27 individuals and organizations inducted in the last five years have represented those musical genres), the Rochester  Music Hall of Fame selection committee has taken no notice of the local performances of Elvis, the Rolling Stones,  Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and many others.

Caruso’s Convention Hall notice.  Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, May 1908 From CARUSO SINGS TONIGHT!

A cynic might suspect that in 2011 some member of the Hall’s organizational committee, aware of the Rochester visit of the much-ballyhooed Lind, sought to grab some quick PR by cobbling together a link between the Hall and the 19th. Century musical legend.  Whatever the rationale, post-Lind performances as an eligibility category mysteriously disappeared immediately thereafter and the Hall’s focus was restricted primarily to contemporary Rochester-area individuals and groups, apparently to play to the parochial interests of a community sadly unaware of its rich and lengthy musical history.  Given the above, I hope I may be excused for suggesting that the Rochester Music Hall of Fame’s selection process is badly flawed.4

Surely consistency (and fairness and integrity) require that the Hall of Fame either begin to induct the Rochester performances of other recognized musical “greats” or alternatively, take the more logical course of revoking their past recognition of Jenny Lind’s performances on the grounds that merely being played or sung in Rochester hardly qualifies a tunes or two for inclusion in a legitimate municipal Hall of Fame.

So there we have it.  Or at least, there I have it.  My biases, being no less biased than anyone else’s’, say to me that these two Halls of Fame have unfortunately (and unnecessarily) opted to trade credibility for popularity.



¹ A classic example of what happens when a Hall loses public support is the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, the first such Hall in America.  Dedicated in 1901 on what was then the campus of NYU, the Hall features the busts of prominent American men and women.  Falling on financial hard times (and falling apart literally) in the 1970s, no one has been inducted in over 40 years.  Attempts have been made from time-to-time to revitalize the Hall.  All without success.

² The best source for information on the story is Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

³Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue“, premiered by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra on Feb. 12, 1924 at the Aeolian Concert Hall in New York, was first performed outside of New York City on May 15, 1924 at Rochester’s Convention Hall (today’s GEVA Theater), again with Whiteman’s orchestra and with Gershwin at the piano.

Democrat and Chronicle, May 14, 1924

4 In the interest of public disclosure, it should be noted that I nominated the Performances of Enrico Caruso a couple of years ago.  That nomination was met with cricket chirps.   Next year I intend to re-nominate those performances and also nominate Gershwin’s performance.  I will not be holding my breath waiting for those doing the selecting to experience an epiphany.



About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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