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The Impact Henrietta Lacks Had on the World

Kristi Harris, Hard News Editor

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Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman born on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. She was four when her mother, Eliza Lacks Pleasant, passed away while giving birth to her tenth child. Henrietta was then sent to live with her Grandfather, where she met her first-cousin, David Lacks. They married and had their first child when she was 14 years old. They raised their family in Baltimore, Maryland and had five children; Lawrence, Elsie, David Jr., Deborah, and Joseph.


Mrs. Lacks’ astonishing story started in 1951 when she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few hospitals that would treat people of color, to be treated for abdomen pain and bleeding. After a procedure on her cervix, Dr. Howard Jones found a large tumor, diagnosing her with Cervical Cancer. She immediately began radium treatment to fight off the fast developing cancer, what she didn’t know, was the testing that was being done on her cells.


Dr. George Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting and testing each of his patients’ tissue for years. He would first take them to his lab and put them into a tube, then the tube went into an incubator where the cells would either grow or die. Dr. Gey was experimenting with cells to determine if any of them would survive outside the human body. During one of Mrs. Lacks treatment procedures, he took a slice of both her normal cells and cancer cells. Unfortunately, her normal cells quickly died in his lab like everyone else’s. However, her cancer cells did not; they rapidly grew by the dozen, becoming the first immortal cells, which they named HeLa. After months of treatment, Mrs. Lacks passed away on October 4, 1951. However, her cells will live on forever.


The issue behind the discovery of her immortal cells was that Dr. Gey took them illegally. He never received, or asked for consent from Mrs. Lacks, nor did he inform her family about his actions. Dr. Gey kept his actions from the family because he thought they were “too uneducated” to understand the circumstances. When Lack’s cells became publicly known as the first immortal cells, Dr. Gey recognized the woman behind the cells as Helen Lane to keep the information from getting back to the family. It wasn’t until 20 years later, during the 1970’s, that the Lacks family was contacted about their mother’s cells. They were filled with rage due to the manner in which the doctors used their mother’s body. They eventually came to terms with the situation as they  realized the impact that their mother’s cells had in science.


Mrs. Lacks died not knowing how incredible her cells turned out to be. These trillion cells helped in the development of vaccines, notably the polio vaccine. The Polio virus is a disease that spread by direct person to person contact. It became an epidemic in 1936, sweeping through the Southern region of the United States. Jonas Salk used HeLa cells in testing the first polio vaccine in the 1950’s, shortly after she passed away. They were found to cause polio-infected cells to quickly die. Following this discovery, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) found a facility capable of producing mass amounts of HeLa cells. The cell culture factory was established at Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1953. Within a year of the establishment, the vaccine was ready for use.


This amazing story about Mrs. Lacks was told by Rebecca Skloot, who wrote a book titled, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” published in February of 2010. Skloot captures the perspective of the family vs. Johns Hopkins Hospital. Once she earned the trust of the Lacks family, she worked closely with them to effectively portray how the family was impacted by the situation and how they felt about the outcome.


The purpose of Skloot’s writing was to personally acknowledge the woman behind the cells. Before the book was published, Mrs. Lacks was not widely known. There wasn’t a lot of people that knew what kind of person she was, where she came from, or what her life was like. In April of 2017, Skloot’s novel was made into a movie that was produced by Alan Ball. Mrs. Lacks’ contribution to science will live on forever.

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Kristi Harris, News Editor

Kristi Harris came into the world with a bang on June 11, 2000. This day was supposed to be her brother Sterling’s special day because he was getting...

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The Impact Henrietta Lacks Had on the World