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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Mass Amherst chapter.

Scientists had been searching for over 30 years for cells that had the ability to live and reproduce outside of the human body. Then, in 1951, a black woman named Henrietta Lacks entered Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland for treatment for cervical cancer.

After taking a biopsy from her cervix, doctors kept Henrietta’s cells in tubes for further scientific research.

Unlike the rest of the cells used for research, which ended up dying, Henrietta’s kept growing at an incredible rate. They were immortal.

The problem with this? No one informed Henrietta or her family about taking her cells, nor did they bother to ask for her consent. 

So, why should you know about Henrietta? 

Her cells have been at the forefront of basically every scientific breakthrough, such as the successful creation of the polio vaccine, research into how to safely send humans into space, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization, and more. Doctors even used techniques that Henrietta’s cells helped develop to take cells from a cornea to help treat blindness.

person putting liquid into test tubes
Photo by Louis Reed from Unsplash

Her identity was hidden from the world – her cells were being referred to as HeLa instead. Her family was left in the dark about the impact Henrietta was having on the world around them.

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for cases similar to Henrietta’s to appear. Hospitals around the country, like Johns Hopkins, were snatching black people off of the streets and experimenting on them. These unethical and illegal experiments and studies led to incredible discoveries, such as the ones that involved HeLa. However, while scientists and doctors received millions of dollars, the Lacks’ never saw a penny. 

I came across the story of Henrietta while reading the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I was so ashamed of our country for such an abuse of medical power and malpractice. Henrietta’s cells were immortal, and she was never given credit or recognized for the discoveries her cells led to. 

It also touches upon a dark secret within the United State’s past regarding the oppression and abuse that African Americans suffered under.

Informed consent is a mandatory and very necessary process required of medical providers to obtain from their patients. This requires them to describe the treatment or procedure fully, emphasize the role in decision-making that the patient has, discuss the alternatives to the treatment or procedure, and discuss all risks involved. 

Although informed consent was not legally established until the 1980s, well after Henrietta’s death, it’s still disturbingly shocking knowing that Henrietta, along with hundreds of other African Americans, were completely taken advantage of by medical professionals. These were people that were supposed to help them, that they could trust.

Henrietta’s cells were special and contributed so much towards science. The discoveries and advancements that she helped develop likely never would have happened or would have been extremely delayed, if it wasn’t for her. The world would literally be different if it wasn’t for Henrietta. 

It feels wrong knowing that the research that led to sending humans into space and having a vaccine for diseases, such as polio, happened from the mistreatment and unethical handling of Henrietta, a woman who had a family and so much more life to live. 

This article doesn’t nearly do enough justice of sharing Henrietta and her family’s story, but it’s a step in the right direction. I highly recommend reading the novel written by Rebecca Skloot, as well as watching the movie that was released based on the book, starring Oprah Winfrey.

Stephanie Edwards

U Mass Amherst '23

Stephanie is a junior pursuing a BA in Legal Studies with a minor in Psychology. She loves spending time with her quirky rescue dog, Ava, and going for a run to let off steam. She hopes to one day visit her dream destination: Scotland.
Contributors from the University of Massachusetts Amherst