It’s 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, and Henrietta Lacks is deathly ill with cancer. But while doctors are treating her condition, they stealthily remove cell samples from her cervix. More than 60 years later, the results of this procedure are still saving lives – but at what cost to Lacks and her family?
Born Loretta Pleasance in the community of Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920, Lacks was part of a big family. But when she was just four years old, her mother Eliza passed away. Unable to cope with Lacks and her nine siblings, her father Johnny spread the children out between their relatives.
For Lacks, who was now going by the nickname Hennie, this meant a move to Clover, VA, where she was taken in by her grandfather. There, she lived in a log cabin – the former slave quarters of a plantation once owned by her white ancestors. And with limited space available, she was placed in the bedroom of her cousin, David Lacks.
In 1939 a 14-year-old Lacks gave birth to David’s child, a boy named Lawrence. And four years later, their daughter Elsie arrived. Finally, on April 10, 1941, the pair married and settled into life on the family tobacco farm. However, another cousin, Fred Garrett, soon persuaded them to relocate to Maryland for work.
There the Lacks family continued to grow. And in November 1950, Henrietta gave birth to their fifth child. But just two months later, she was back at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, complaining of a strange, knot-like sensation in her womb. Soon a doctor had diagnosed her with cervical cancer.
Hoping to cure her of the condition, Lacks’ doctors began treating her with radiation. And as was common practice at the time, they also took a small sample of the cancerous tissue. But when Hopkins doctor George Gey took a closer looks at Lacks’ cells, he discovered something that would transform the world of medical research.
Previously, researchers such as Gey had only been able to study cells that died off within days of being extracted – making it impossible to perform any lengthy tests or procedures. However, Lacks’ cells were different. In fact, they seemed to thrive outside of her body, able to remain alive while multiplying time and time again.
Due to their unique qualities, Lacks’ cells were soon dubbed “immortal.” However, the same could not be said for Lacks herself. And on October 4, 1951, she passed away at Johns Hopkins Hospital, two months after being admitted for severe abdominal pain. According to an autopsy, the cancer had spread throughout her whole body.
But even though Lacks’ cells would go on to become invaluable to medical research, the woman herself languished in obscurity for many years. In fact, she had never even known that the samples had been extracted – let alone given her permission for them to be studied and reproduced. Furthermore, Gey lied about the origin of the cells – although Lacks would later be named in a medical journal.
Her contribution to science unrecognized, Lacks was buried near her mother in an unmarked grave back in Halifax County, VA. Meanwhile, her cells continued to thrive outside of her body. And having acquired additional samples from Lacks’ corpse, Gey succeeded in isolating and dividing a single cell – creating what became known as the HeLa line.
Because Lacks’ cells were able to continue reproducing, they went on to form the backbone of a number of medical advances. In fact, in 1954 the virologist Jonas Salk produced HeLa cells en masse to facilitate his research. And one year later, his polio vaccine was released – an innovation that is still considered an essential medicine today.
Around the same time, another virologist, Chester M. Southam, began conducting his own controversial research. Hoping to gain some insight into the nature of cancer, he began injecting HeLa cells into individuals and observing how their bodies responded. However, Southam’s work was often carried out without consent – sometimes on prison inmates who had little choice in the matter.
As scientists around the world began to express an interest in HeLa cells, they began to be produced on a large scale. And as well as aiding research into radiation, AIDS, cancer and genetics, they have also been used by cosmetic companies and even the military over the years.
In fact, some 20 tons of HeLa cells have been grown over the six decades since Gey’s initial discovery. And in that time, nearly 11,000 related patents have been registered. But until the 1970s, Lacks’ family remained ignorant about the role that their mother’s cells were playing in medical history.
Around this time, researchers discovered that HeLa cells had begun contaminating other cultures, causing serious damage to vital research. Hoping to learn more about the situation, some of them reached out to Lacks’ family, asking for donations of blood. Unsurprisingly, the requests baffled her surviving relatives.
Then, in 1973 Lacks’ daughter-in-law got into a conversation with a cancer researcher at a friend’s dinner party. Recognizing her name, the scientist mentioned that his work involved the cells of a Henrietta Lacks – and that she had died of cervical cancer. Realizing the connection, the woman ran home to her husband with the shocking news.
Concerned that Lacks’ cells had been reproduced without their consent, her family began making inquiries. However, they did not get very far. In fact, things got worse, and in the 1980s they discovered that their own medical records had been published – even though they had not given, or even been asked for, their consent.
Then, in 1998 writer Rebecca Skloot produced a documentary on Lacks, followed by a book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in 2010. And slowly, the woman behind the HeLa cell line began to win the recognition that she deserved, Today, many institutions that are indebted to her unique cells have publicly acknowledged her vital contribution to their research.
Now Lacks has been awarded an honorary degree from Maryland’s Morgan State University, as well as recognition from both the National Foundation for Cancer Research and the Smithsonian Institution. Furthermore, she now has a gravestone, funded by a family friend and member of the Morehouse School of Medicine.
On Lacks’ memorial, a poem features the line, “Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.” But even though her contribution to medical science has been immeasurable, her family has sometimes felt exploited by researchers’ lack of concern about consent. And even though previous legal battles have ruled that discarded cells are no longer the property of an individual, they continue to fight for control of the HeLa legacy.