Archives of Maryland
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
MSA SC 3520-16887
Despite living a very short life, Henrietta Lacks is one of the most important people in the history of medicine. Lacks’ cells, known as the HeLa cell line, are mysteriously immortal and have been used by scientists and researchers all over the world to study and develop cures for a plethora of diseases. For decades, Lacks and her family were not given any recognition for her contribution to the medical field, but, in recent years, Henrietta Lacks’ legacy has been credited for saving the lives of millions.
Henrietta Lacks was born as Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia in August 1920 to Johnny and Eliza Pleasant, both African American. No one is aware when she changed her name to Henrietta from Loretta. Lacks’ mother died when she was only five, and she was then sent to live in Clover, Virginia with her grandfather in a log cabin that was previously the slave quarters on her white great-grandfather’s plantation.1 While slavery was still legal, Lacks’ white great-grandfather took a slave mistress, thus starting Henrietta’s family line of black Lackses.2 When she was old enough, Lacks began farming tobacco on the plantation like the rest of her family.
Lacks gave birth to her first child soon after her fourteenth birthday, and the father of the child was her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks.3 Henrietta and Day named their first son Lawrence and, four years later, Lacks gave birth to her second child and first daughter, Eliza. On April 10, 1941, Henrietta, age 20, married Day, age 25. Soon after their marriage, Day moved to Baltimore to take advantage of the large amount of opportunity in the steel factories during World War II, and Henrietta and the two children soon followed.
While living in Baltimore, Henrietta gave birth to three more children. She “spent her time cooking for Day, the children, and whichever cousins happened to be at her house. She made her famous rice pudding and slow-cooked greens, chitlins, and the vats of spaghetti with meatballs she kept going on the stove for whenever cousins dropped by hungry.”4 One of her friends reflected that “Hennie made life come alive—bein with her was like bein with fun. Hennie just love peoples. She was a person that could really make the good things come out of you.”5 Although Henrietta Lacks held the ability to make the good come out of people, something lethal was growing inside her body. She began telling her family and friends that she had a knot in her womb or that she was bleeding even though it was not her time of the month.6 After feeling something strange on her cervix, Lacks knew it was imperative for her to go visit a doctor.
Lacks made an appointment at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and her biopsy results determined that she had Stage I epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, or cervical cancer. The doctor that examined her found it incredibly interesting that even though she had no cervical abnormalities when she delivered a baby at Hopkins three months prior, she now returned to the hospital with a cancerous tumor.7 After the mass was diagnosed as cancerous, Lacks was instructed to return to the hospital to begin radium treatment. Radium was known to cause cancer, but it was also known to kill cancer. Unfortunately, it was also known to burn the skin, which is exactly what happened to Lacks during her treatment. Those close to her were horrified when Lacks confided in them the damage from her treatment, telling them that “Lord it just feels like that blackness be spreadin all inside me.”8
That “blackness,” her cancer, was actually spreading all inside her. In August 1951, Lacks returned to Hopkins, asking to be admitted because her pain was unbearable. She died a grim death on October 4, 1951 at age 31 from cancer that had metastasized throughout her entire body. Lacks was buried in a wooden box in an unmarked grave in Clover, Virginia. What Henrietta Lacks and her family did not know, however, was that she would live on forever through her cells. During her cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins, her doctor took healthy and cancerous samples from Lacks’ cervix without informing her of his actions or getting consent from her, and gave them to George Gey, a cancer researcher. This was standard practice, and, at the time of Lacks’s death, there were no state or federal laws regarding obtaining consent from any patient.9 Gey was constantly analyzing human cells in an effort to create the perfect culture medium, or the liquid used for feeding cells. After being placed in a Petri dish, the cells would usually die within a few hours, but Gey found that Henrietta’s cells did something amazing. Her cells kept reproducing.
Gey started his own cell line, which he named HeLa in tribute to Henrietta Lacks. Neither Gey nor his assistant revealed the name of the original owner of the immortal cell line, thus making Lacks’ name unknown to the public. The medical breakthroughs from the usage of HeLa cells quickly began after Lacks’ death. A scientist named Jonas Salk proclaimed that he had found a cure to polio but needed to test the vaccine first. Salk acquired some HeLa cells, and, in 1954, Salk released the vaccine that prevented polio. Millions of lives were saved from this disease, thanks to the testing performed on the HeLa cells.
Since Gey did not patent his HeLa cells, labs all over the world soon began obtaining these unique cells for research and experiments. HeLa cells even went to space when the United States wanted to test how human cells would react in zero gravity, and were used to determine the affects of the atomic bomb.10 Scientists used HeLa cells to study molecular biology, virology, and genetics. Lacks’ cells were also used for research on cancer, AIDS, and, more recently, Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). Vaccines and drugs for diseases such as herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease were also developed through testing done on HeLa cells.
Henrietta Lacks’ cells were being used to make scientific breakthroughs beyond many researchers’ wildest dreams, but her family was unaware of Henrietta’s contribution to science. In 1953, a reporter at the Minneapolis Star claimed that the HeLa cells belonged to a woman named Henrietta Lakes, alerting people for the first time that these were human cells.11 Other reporters claimed that HeLa stood for Helen Lane or Helen Larson.12 Either way, the name Henrietta Lacks was never published, and the Lacks family was unaware that Henrietta’s cells were being circulated around the globe until 1973.
One day in 1973, Bobbette Lacks, Lawrence’s wife, was having lunch with her friend and her friend’s brother-in-law. The brother-in-law and Bobbette discovered that they were from the same part of Baltimore, and Bobbette told him that her last name was Lacks. Her friend’s brother-in-law told Bobbette that he worked at the National Cancer Institute and that he had been working for years with cells in his lab that he just recently learned belonged to a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Bobbette soon learned that this man, like many others around the world, had her mother-in-law’s cells in their labs.13 Thus began the anger, confusion, and frustration that would consume the Lacks family for decades.
The Lacks family, still living in Baltimore City, was impoverished and in poor health. They were being harassed by doctors and researchers for blood samples and developed a serious mistrust of Johns Hopkins Hospital. They felt that they had been robbed by Hopkins and thought that Henrietta was still alive and her body was being held hostage in the hospital. Some members of the family thought that suing the hospital for taking a part of Henrietta without her consent or knowledge was the proper path, but they would soon learn their case was fruitless. Around the same time the Lacks family discovered the truth about the HeLa cells, a Californian man named Roger Moore was attempting to sue his doctor for unknowingly scraping his cells and profiting from them. The case finally reached the Supreme Court of California, and the court ruled that “When tissues are removed from your body, with or without your consent, any claim you might have had to owning them vanishes. When you leave tissues in a doctor’s office or a lab, you abandon them as waste, and anyone can take your garbage and sell it.”14 This ruling set a precedent, stripping a large amount of power away from patients and legally allowing doctors and researchers to financially exploit their patients if they discovered something medically groundbreaking. This opened a global debate about bioethics, but also left the Lacks’ family without a legal case.
In 1997, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) came to Baltimore to interview the Lacks family for a documentary about the HeLa cells’ role in cancer research. This gained some publicity about the woman behind the HeLa cells, and, in the same year, then United States Representative Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. formally addressed Congress about Lacks, saying that “Henrietta Lacks’ selfless contribution to the field of medicine has gone without acknowledgement for far too long. Her cells made her immortal: through her death, countless others have been saved by the research that was made possible through her cell line…I sincerely hope her name will also be immortalized as one of courage, hope, and strength, and that due recognition will be given to her role in medicine and science.”15 Henrietta’s enormous contribution to decades of science was recognized, but true justice for Henrietta still seemed hopeless.
Hope came to the Lacks family a few years later in the form of a young, white, female writer named Rebecca Skloot. Skloot became fascinated with the mystery behind the HeLa cells at age sixteen and spent many years trying to uncover the story behind the immortal cells. The Lacks, understandably, were mistrusting of Skloot and her motives. Skloot, however, proved to be faithful to the family in regards to spreading their story, and she became the closest with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah. Deborah never knew her mother but always wanted to understand what happened to her. Through Deborah, Skloot was able to better understand the struggles of the family and tell the story of Henrietta, and through Skloot, Deborah was able to learn about her mother and even hold her cells. Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in 2010 and describes the book as “not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.”16 The novel became an instant best-seller and was even comissioned by Oprah Winfrey to be made into a movie. The Lacks family was finally given the recognition they struggled for years to gain.
In 2013, 62 years after Henrietta’s death, the Lackses were finally able to have a voice in the distribution of HeLa cells. Controversy began again in early 2013 after a German lab published the HeLa genome in an online magazine. The German research lab published the paper “to show the degree to which the genomes of HeLa cells diverged from those of healthy cells, so researchers could take that into account when designing experiments and analyzing results from studies using the HeLa cell line,” but the Lacks family worried that others would be able to formulate their genetic codes through this public information.17 The article was taken down, but the Lackses still felt their biological information was being distributed without their consent and that “history was repeating itself” since anyone could get a hold of Henrietta’s genomes.18 In August 2013, an agreement between the Lackses and the National Institute of Health (NIH) was formulated, decreeing that scientists had to obtain permission from the NIH in order to conduct research on HeLa cells. The NIH and two members of the Lacks family would approve or reject the applications as they saw fit. Finally, the Lacks family could stop the outright exploitation of Henrietta.
Henrietta Lacks did not live a long life, but her cells will live on forever. She has had a greater impact on science than any other scientist or researcher will ever claim, and her cells have been used to save the lives of a countless number of people and animals. As the most important person in medicine, and as a former Maryland resident, Henrietta Lacks will be immortalized as an important Maryland woman through her induction into the 2014 Women’s Hall of Fame.
- Henrietta Lacks Women’s Hall of Fame 2014 Nomination Packet. Return to text
- “The Way of All Flesh,” Adam Curtis, available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0lMrp_ySg8. Return to text
- Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010), 23. Return to text
- Ibid, 42. Return to text
- Ibid, 43. Return to text
- Ibid, 15. Return to text
- Ibid, 17. Return to text
- Ibid, 48. Return to text
- Alok Jha and Rebecca Skloot, “The ‘immortal’ Henrietta Lacks–Science Weekly,” podcast audio, The Guardian: Science Weekly, accessed June 25, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/audio/2010/jun/21/science-weekly-podcast-henrietta-lacks-rebecca-skloot?commentpage=1. Return to text
- Henrietta Lacks Women’s Hall of Fame 2014 Nomination Packet. Return to text
- Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, 105. Return to text
- Ibid, 109. Return to text
- Ibid, 180. Return to text
- Ibid, 205. Return to text
- Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., “In Memory of Henrietta Lacks” (June 4, 1997), Congressional Record Volume 143, Number 75, https://beta.congress.gov/congressional-record/1997/06/04/extensions-of-remarks-section/article/E1109-1. Return to text
- Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, 7. Return to text
- “German lab apologizes for publishing the genome of ‘immortal’ woman’s cell line,” Washington Post, April 2, 2013. Return to text
- Andrea K. Walker, “Lacks’ kin finally get say in use of her cells: After decades, NIH accord requires permission to use her genome in research,” Baltimore Sun, August 8, 2013. Return to text
Biography written by 2014 summer intern Sharon Miyagawa.
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