An African American woman whose ‘Immortal cells’ have played a crucial role in many medical breakthroughs. Her cells have helped to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.
But who was she? What have her cells done? Well…
She was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920. Originally named Loretta, when or why she changed her name is a mystery.
Her mother died when she was 4, during childbirth. With 10 kids left under his care, her father unable to look after them on his own, so they were sent to live with relatives in Southern Virginia.
Eventually living with her grandfather as the rest of her siblings were divided amongst the family.
She attended a ‘coloured school’ as segregation was still in force at the time. However, she wouldn’t finish school and left after 6th grade to work on the tobacco fields full time.
She would go on to marry her cousin ‘Day’, with whom she grew up with in her grandfathers house.
They married on April 10, 1941, in a private ceremony and moved to Turner Station, Maryland. A community outside Baltimore where many African American steelworkers lived.
They had five children together: Lawrence, Elsie, Deborah, Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman, and David Lacks Jr.
In 1951, Henrietta had felt something strange inside of her so sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Taken Without Permission
She met with Dr. Howard Jones, during a consultation, he removed a small portion of the tumour and sent it for examination. He sent her home and told her to await the results.
When the results finally came in, she was diagnosed with stage 1 cervical cancer.
During that period in the US, public hospitals would often conduct research on patients. With no regulations in place to outlaw it, this happened regularly without consent.
Her tumour sample was taken without her consent and sent to George Gey’s lab. He was the head of tissue culture research at Hopkins.
For years, Gey had unsuccessfully being trying to grow and keep alive, human cells outside of the body in Petri dishes.
Her sample was carefully sliced, then mixed with the media the cells would need to grow and labelled them ‘HeLa’. The first two letters of her first and last name.
The following day, her cells had divided, this process followed in the days ahead. The cells kept making copies of themselves, growing like nothing that had been seen before.
Word soon spread in the medial research world of the amazing HeLa cells. Gey started sending samples of the cells to any scientist interested.
To counter the cancer, she was given a course of Radium treatment. But, by Autumn, 1951, her body was full of tumours.
On October 4, 1951, she succumbed to multiple cancers. Her body was sent home to Virginia and buried in a unmarked grave in the family plot.
Impact of HeLa Cells
The importance and impact to her immortal cells cannot be overstated.
HeLa cells have been used to develop vaccines for polio, measles, and rubella, as well as treatments for AIDS.
Through her unbroken continuous cell line, cancer research has developed, also able to map the human genome.
Her cells have been sent to space, tested on a nuclear bomb and even the first human cells cloned was hers.
As the family didn’t know for years about her cells being used. It wasn’t until her name was released to the public that hers were the famous HeLa cells.
In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a statement acknowledging the role of HeLa cells in medical research and apologising for the lack of informed consent.
Finally, a headstone at her grave was unveiled in 2013. It reads: "Henrietta Lacks , 1920-1951 , Her immortal cells revolutionized medicine"
A drama film titled ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ starring Oprah Winfrey in 2017, garnered further recognition of her immortal cells to science.