The Story of Henrietta Lacks: A Look Into America’s Racist Medical History

By Meriem Cherif

In the world of science, HeLa’s cell line tells a story of the innovation as well as the exploitation prevalent in medical research. Born in 1920, Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who, along with her husband and five children, lived in Baltimore. After experiencing abdominal pain, Henrietta visited the segregated John’s Hopkins Hospital to consult her doctor. Quickly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer, she eventually passed away on October 4, 1951—but not all of her died. Against her knowledge, Henrietta’s doctor stole samples of her cancerous cervix cells; the cells reproduced remarkably, becoming the first immortal cell line which was dubbed HeLa (short for Henrietta Lacks). The cell line made its way around the world, assisting in the development of vaccines for HPV and polio, efficient genome mapping practices, and resources to study virology. Back home in Baltimore, however, Henrietta’s children lived with no knowledge of their mother’s contributions. While the sale of HeLa generated hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide, Henrietta’s children lived in poverty, unable to afford basic medical care. Describes her son, “She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”

Although HeLa cells made valuable contributions to medical research, one fact remains unchanged: the cells were taken without consent. Unfortunately, this is nothing new—the profiteering off of unsuspecting African Americans in the name of science is ingrained in American history. In 1932, the immoral Tuskegee Experiment studied Black men with syphilis. researchers watched as the men lost their mental stability, eyesight, and lives due to the effects of the disease, but still refused to give them treatment. 

During Black History Month, famous African-American pioneers of science, the arts, and social justice are commemorated for their achievements to society. However, we must not forget the mistreatment of Black people and America’s dark side of history, one with stories of hatred, corruption, and injustice. By reflecting on the stories of Henrietta Lacks and others, we can work towards a present and future that closes the gap of medical discrimination, paving the way for an equitable healthcare system.