If you’ve never heard of Henrietta Lacks, don’t worry, neither had I, until a recent stumble upon a Ted-Ed video.
Henrietta Lacks, born Henrietta Pleasent (August 11, 1920 -October 4, 1951), was an African-American woman born in Roanoke, Virginia. After the death of her mother, she went to live with her grandfather and first cousin David Lacks, who’d become her husband and father of five children.
In January 1951, after the birth of her fifth child, Joseph, Henrietta went to John Hopkins Hospital to diagnose abnormal pains. She was later diagnosed with cervical cancer. During her treatment, doctors at John Hopkins obtained a sample of the tumor in her cervix without her knowledge. Mrs. Lacks died on October 4, 1951. She was only 31 years old. As her body lay in the autopsy room in John Hopkins, doctors again removed cells from Henrietta.
These samples made their way to Dr. George Otto Gey, pronounced “Guy,” who was a cell biologist at the hospital. He noticed that these cells had the ability to be divided without dying. This was remarkable because, before the discovery of Mrs. Lacks cells, researchers had to cultivate cells for lab research. These cultivated cells did not have the ability to divide or remain alive long enough for extensive research. In fact, the cultivated cells had a lifetime of one or two days, much too short to perform multiple experiments. The cells illegally obtained from Henrietta became known as HeLa Cells or “The Immortal Cells.” HeLa is simply the first two letters of the first and last name of Henrietta Lacks.
The HeLa Cell line, created by Dr. Gey, went on to be the largest contribution to the medical research world. Because of these cells, researchers were able to create the Polio Vaccine, study cancers, AIDS, gene mapping, and the effects of radiation. Scientists also used the HeLa cells to test sensitivities of beauty products, tape, and glue on human cells.
The family of Mrs. Lacks was unaware, as she had been, to the use of her DNA until 1970, after the death of Dr. Gey, who died of Pancreatic Cancer on November 8, 1970. According to Biography.com, the Lacks family, in 2013, was granted acknowledgment in scientific papers and some oversight of her genome in a settlement with The National Institute of Health.
It is unclear if there was any monetary compensation involved in the settlement, but between you and I, if there was, I’m sure they got paaaaiiidddd.
Here’s to the legacy of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks, who single-handedly transformed medical science for centuries to come. We honor you today and forever Queen.
If you’re interested in learning more about the life and contribution Henrietta made to science you can check out the New York Times Bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot available on Amazon.
You should also check out the award winning 1998 BBC documentary “The Way of All Flesh” by Adam Curtis. Adam Curtis won the Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
All images used were obtained from Google Images.