Let’s Celebrate Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks
More than the Marvel of her Cells
February 25, 2021
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks sought treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland where her cells were sampled and mass produced without her knowledge or consent.
The doctor who treated Lacks, George Gey, collected samples from every patient he treated; however, Lacks’ cells, nicknamed HeLa cells, were the only ones to survive. In fact, the HeLa cells doubled around once a day.
Dr. Gey created copies of these cells and sent them out to other doctors and members of the scientific community due to their unprecedented ability to survive and reproduce.
HeLa cells resulted in a wide variety of scientific discoveries. They allowed for in-depth research of cancer cells and their reactions to various treatment methods without the use of human testing. In fact, the development of the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization was aided greatly by HeLa cells.
Despite the profound effect that Henrietta Lacks had on the medical community, she was not rewarded or recognized before her death in 1951. Neither Lacks nor her relatives received financial compensation from the usage of HeLa cells, and Lacks’ family was not consulted before doctors revealed her medical records to the public.
Lacks lives on not only in her immortal cells but also in her vast network of descendants, some of whom are organizing a campaign known as #HELA100. This effort encourages scientists to acknowledge that HeLa cells were the product of a black woman who was much more than a medical anomaly.
Lacks’ grandson Alfred Lacks Carter states, “[HeLa cells] were taken in a bad way but they are doing good for the world.”
It is critical to recognize that Henrietta Lacks is much more than her cells. She was a dedicated mother of five with a love for cooking and dancing. Her home was a focal point for extended family and always open to those in need.
Henrietta Lacks: Science must right a historical wrong. (2020, September 1). Nature.