Henrietta Lacks: How the Unauthorized Harvest of a Black Woman’s Cells Revolutionized Medicine and Transformed the World

Henrietta Lacks was a remarkable black woman whose cells, which were harvested without her consent, were crucial to a revolutionary medical discovery that ultimately saved countless lives. Through their unique properties, these cells have propelled groundbreaking discoveries and paved the path for transformative advancements in the field of medicine.

Henrietta Lacks: How the Unauthorized Harvest of a Black Woman's Cells Revolutionized Medicine and Transformed the World

Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, into a family of tobacco farmers. Her life was marked by struggles and adversity. At the age of four, her mother died, and she was sent to live with her grandfather in Clover, Virginia.

Growing up in Clover, Henrietta Lacks, like many others in her family, contributed to the farming community as a tobacco farmer from a young age. Her daily responsibilities included caring for animals, maintaining the garden, and working diligently in the tobacco fields. Despite the challenges of her circumstances, she pursued her education at a nearby black school located two miles away from her cabin. However, in order to assist her family, Henrietta regrettably had to discontinue her schooling in the sixth grade. Later in life, she married David “Day” Lacks, and together they welcomed five children into their lives.

In 1951, at the age of 30, Henrietta Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only medical facility in the area that provided treatment for African American patients during that time. She expressed her concerns to the doctors about experiencing random bleedings and groin pain, expressing worry over the potential impact on her work.

Henrietta Lacks

After being examined by gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones, it was discovered that Henrietta Lacks had a large malignant tumor on her cervix. This diagnosis led to her undergoing treatments for cervical cancer in an effort to combat the disease.

At the same time, a portion of Henrietta’s cancer cells was harvested and sent to the nearby tissue laboratory of Dr. George Gey, a devoted researcher specializing in cancer and viruses.

Dr. Gey had been amassing cell samples from cervical cancer patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital. However, most of the cells he gathered didn’t last long in his lab, except for Henrietta Lacks’s cells. Surprisingly, Henrietta’s cells had an amazing ability to stay alive and multiply. They were the first human cells to be grown successfully in a lab, and they were incredibly tough. This characteristic made her cells truly exceptional in the scientific community.

Henrietta Lacks: How the Unauthorized Harvest of a Black Woman's Cells Revolutionized Medicine and Transformed the World

Unfortunately, Henrietta Lacks died soon after her treatment began, at the age of 31, never knowing the immense impact her cells would have on the field of science.

Impact on Medical Science

The discovery of the immortal HeLa cells was a turning point in medical science. Researchers were finally able to study human cells outside the body, opening up new avenues for understanding disease, testing new drugs, and developing vaccines.

The initial experiments conducted on Henrietta Lacks’s cells focused on polio, and to the surprise of scientists, they exhibited an extraordinary ability to survive. Unlike most cells, they did not perish immediately. This remarkable characteristic enabled researchers to extensively study Henrietta’s cells and ultimately discover a vaccine for polio. Henrietta Lacks’s cells, known as HeLa cells, became an invaluable tool in the fight against polio and opened doors to further medical advancements.

HeLa cells have also aided in the production of the HPV vaccine and contributed to advancements in cancer, AIDS and Parkinson’s treatments and the development of the recent coronavirus vaccines. In total it’s estimated that HeLa cells have saved over 10 million lives.

Apart from being some of the first cells to be grown, HeLa cells also were the first to be commercialized — creating the foundation for a multibillion dollar industry based on buying and selling tissues and cells and patenting genes.

Henrietta Lacks’s family remained unaware of the widespread use and commercialization of her cells until more than two decades after her death in 1951 when scientists approached the family. The scientists requested DNA samples from them after discovering that the HeLa cells had contaminated other cell cultures. This revelation finally revealed to the family the truth about Henrietta’s remarkable cells and their widespread impact in scientific research.

Legacy and Recognition

In recent years, significant strides have been made to honor the invaluable contribution of Henrietta Lacks to the field of science and address the ethical considerations surrounding the use of her cells. In 2013, a significant development occurred when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reached an agreement with the Lacks family, providing them with a measure of control and access to the genetic information derived from the HeLa cells. This agreement also included the long-overdue recognition and acknowledgment of Henrietta Lacks’s profound impact on science and medicine.

Furthermore, in 2020, an important legislative step was taken with the signing of the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act. This act aims to enhance access to federal funding for researchers focusing on cancer studies within underrepresented populations, thereby promoting more equitable representation and understanding in this critical area of research.

While financial compensation has yet to be provided to the Lacks family, sincere efforts have been made to ensure their involvement and consent in future research endeavors involving the HeLa cells. The focus has shifted towards fostering collaboration, transparency, and ethical considerations to ensure that the family’s rights and interests are respected in the ongoing utilization of Henrietta Lacks’s remarkable cells.

Recently, in October 2021, the estate of Henrietta Lacks initiated a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, alleging that the company had profited from the HeLa cell line without obtaining Lacks’s consent. In their legal claim, the estate requested “the full amount of Thermo Fisher’s net profits.” The case is still ongoing in court.

Posthumous Recognition

In 1996, the Morehouse School of Medicine started an annual conference called the HeLa Women’s Health Conference. This conference aims to recognize Henrietta Lacks, her cell line, and the important contributions African Americans have made to medical research and clinical practice. That same year, the mayor of Atlanta declared October 11, 1996, as “Henrietta Lacks Day”.

In 2010, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research established the Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series. This lecture series is held each year to honor Henrietta Lacks and the significant impact that HeLa cells have had on medicine and research worldwide.

In 2014, Henrietta Lacks was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. Additionally, in 2017, a minor planet in the main asteroid belt was named “359426 Lacks” in her honor.

In 2020, Henrietta Lacks was further recognized for her contributions and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

On June 13, 2023, the Loudoun County Public Schools Board members approved the name for a new school: Henrietta Lacks Elementary School in Aldie, Virginia. This school is set to open in August 2024 and will serve approximately 960 students from kindergarten through 2nd grade.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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