By: Emma Sauer
As you may know, February is Black History month– and this year’s theme is Black Health and Wellness. This extends to the legacy of African Americans not just in medicine and academia, but also as mid-wives, doulas, naturopaths, counselors and therapists, public health activists, and more. With a theme so all-encompassing, I thought it a fitting time to talk about an African American woman who, despite her huge contributions to cancer and leukemia research, cloning, and development of vaccines, will never see or know just how profoundly she changed the world.
Henrietta Lacks was a person much like you or me. She was a mother, a wife, a friend. She loved cooking, her children, and never the left the house without a coat of red nail polish. She was born in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920. She married David Lacks in 1941, and together they raised five children: Lawrence, Elsie, David Jr., Deborah, and Joseph.
10 years flew by. One wonders how Henrietta spent those ten years. What memories did she make with her family? What hardships did she experience? What people did she meet? What made her laugh, smile, or cry? Time has robbed us of the answers to these questions. The bulk of what we know about Henrietta’s life is her last months.
The year was 1951, and Henrietta Lacks was feeling unwell. For some time, she’d had a strange pain in her womb area. She described to her cousins like a “knot”. After experiencing vaginal bleeding, she visited John Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital in the area that would treat black patients. She was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer, and by October 4 of that year, she died. She was just 31. Before she succumbed to the disease, she underwent a biopsy in which her cancerous cervix cells were snipped and sent to the lab of Dr. George Gey. Researchers were amazed by what they found. Henrietta’s cells were incredibly unique. They had the capacity to survive and multiply at a rate far above ordinary cells. Her cells doubled every 20-24 hours, where other cells died. Effectively, her cells were immortal.
Without the knowledge of Mrs. Lacks or her family, John Hopkins Hospital shared her cells widely with other scientists, biotech companies, and institutions. These cells were called HeLa cells, and were the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. Her family was not made aware of this for 20 years.
Both the way Henrietta Lacks’ cells were obtained and used is appalling, but at the time, it was completely legal. Unfortunately, it was not the first or the last time an African American would be exploited by the medical community. For example, 12 years before Henrietta was born, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study began. Forced sterilization policies targeted African Americans and other minority women, lasting until the 70s. The historical context of how scientists acquired the HeLa cells is one steeped in centuries of racism. I can go on and on all day about how wrong this was, but what’s done is done. HeLa cells have been in use longer than Mrs. Lacks even lived. Her descendants continue to tell her story, and as recently as October 2021, they are currently suing Thermo Fisher Scientific for commercialization of HeLa cells.
Henrietta Lacks’ story is disturbing and sad, but her legacy lives on. She has contributed to modern medicine and science in countless ways. HeLa cells have helped scientists understand more about the human genome, leukemia treatment, and vaccines. Her cells have even been used to test the effects of gravity in space. HeLa cells have saved lives, and my intention is not to take away from that. Rather, if you’ve read this far, I hope I’ve sparked some interest in you to learn more about Henrietta Lacks. She’s much more than a cell.