By Isabella Brady
Kindness, strength, vaccinations—the life of Henrietta Lacks, while sadly brief, bestowed all who knew her and the world with infinite blessings; to this day her honorable legacy—and trillions of her extraordinary cells—save lives. Responsible for the scientific phenomenon, Lacks rarely receives the credit rightfully deserved for her ineffable contribution to medicine.
Born on August 1, 1920, Loretta Pleasant lived in Roanoke, Virginia and eventually changed her name to Henrietta. Lacks later moved into her grandfather’s care in Clover, VA following the death of her beloved mother in 1924. It was in her grandfather’s care where she met her cousin David (“Day”) who would eventually be the father of two of her children, and husband in 1941. In the years following, Henrietta and Day expanded their family and moved to Maryland in search of better opportunities. After Elsie, her second child was diagnosed with “idiocy” (likely epilepsy and cerebral palsy) Lacks grudgingly and tearfully brought her to the Hospital for the Negro Insane when Lacks could no longer care for young Elsie safely in addition to her younger children. A dedicated mother, in coming years, Lacks would adamantly visit her child on a weekly basis, despite the distance she traveled to do so.
Shortly after the birth of her fifth child, Lacks described a “knot” inside her, and was referred to the gynecology department of Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore—one of the few institutions of the time offering medical care to African Americans. Conducted by Dr. Howard Jones, the examination wrought devastating news: biopsies of the mass revealed the tumor was malignant, and Lacks at the young age of 31 was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Without her knowledge, nor consent, two of these tissue samples—one from the tumor, one from the surrounding tissue—would be sent to a nearby lab facilitated by George Gey. Searching for an immortal cell line which would revolutionize medicine, in a few short days, Gey would identify such cells in Lack’s tissue and named them HeLa cells. A medical phenomenon, to the current times, scientists are unsure of what uniquely allowed Lacks’ cells to adapt, multiply and thrive so long outside her body.
In coming weeks, Lacks would be treated with multiple rounds of painful and imprecise radium treatments, and Lacks’ body was severely burned due to the aggressive protocol. Nevertheless, she bravely fought despite her fatigue and excruciating pain. Beyond her treatment, Lacks cared for her children and husband as long as she could, and enjoyed playing cards with friends.
Lacks’ reputable hospitality and care to her community proved evident in the countless volunteers who donated their blood on her behalf, hopeful for her recovery. Tragically, Lacks’ health rapidly deteriorated, and she passed away within a year of her diagnosis; on October 4, 1951. Survived by her husband, and her five adoring children: Deborah, Elsie, Zakariyya, David Jr., and Lawrence Lacks.
Sadly, Lacks was never alerted, nor assigned the rightful credit for her contributions to science in her lifetime. Yet, the scientific community nor Johns Hopkins hospital, booming over Lacks’ cells, never informed or acknowledged her and her family, and instead made major discoveries, which would collect millions of dollars in profit; all while Lacks’ family remained in poverty. In a process of dehumanization, the cells which were Henrietta’s would be named HeLa cells, and their origin remained inconspicuous.
Unfortunately, Lacks’ family was not spared from the deep seated racism of the time, and Elsie joined her mother in 1955, at age 15. With her mother gone, nobody would visit young Elsie in the four years before her death. However, as Deborah would discover in adulthood, the reasons for Elsie’s death were dark, and rooted in deep racial, and medical prejudice. Conditions surrounding Elsie’s death reveal abuse, neglect, and experimentation. One disturbing experiment recorded for epilepsy research, involved the drilling through the skull of patients to drain cerebrospinal fluid, and miserably failed.
Although Elsie passed, Henrietta’s remaining children suffered poverty and abuse in the custody of extended family, and absence of their loving mother. In childhood and adulthood, all children experienced a myriad of health issues from heart disease to deafness, and with little money, likewise had little capacity to regulate their health. None of her children would learn their mother’s cells were alive until the 1970’s—over two decades following the historic discovery. To this day, none of Henrietta’s descendents have received compensation for the unethical use of Henrietta’s cells, nor the profits from any advancements discovered using HeLa cells.
Today, Henrietta’s cells have developed world altering vaccines, including polio, and claimed an imperative role in the COVID-19 vaccine. The priceless cells allow for detailed studies on cancers, viruses, radiation and poison—studies which will eventually develop treatment, and an end to many diseases like the one which took Henrietta’s life.
Thus, in the face of dehumanization, racism and medical corruption Henrietta Lacks transcends circumstances, and like her strong spirit, her immortal cells have transformed the world, and will be with us forever.