A Black Woman Gave Us Modern Medicine: Henrietta Lacks

Gene mapping. Cancer and AIDS studies. Space microbiology. The polio vaccine. COVID‑19 research. These medical endeavors and milestones all share a common thread; the cells of Henrietta Lacks, better known as HeLa cells, named after the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name. First found in the 1950s, HeLa cells played a huge role in biomedical research, allowing medical technology to be as advanced as it is in 2021. If you do not study science or history, however, your knowledge of HeLa cells and who they came from may come as new information to you on account of one major detail. HeLa cells belonged to a black woman.

I can confidently say that women’s contributions to society in history often go unrecognized and untaught, but especially the work and contributions of minorities, especially black women. Henrietta Lacks does not escape this reality, as I, an English student, did not learn about Henrietta Lacks until the age of twenty-one. Yet, I reaped the benefits of the contributions made by HeLa cells and continue to do so. I received the Polio vaccine as a child as many do, a vaccine possible due to HeLa cells, and received X-rays when I sprained my ankle in kindergarten, again because researchers used HeLa cells to learn about the effects of the X-rays on human cells. I actively use many makeup products, and researchers used HeLa cells to test human sensitivity to cosmetic products (Batts). As COVID-19 swept the world into the pandemic, researchers used HeLa cells to better understand the virus that would lead to an eventual vaccine (Jackson). So, in honor of Women’s History Month, I want to take the time to tell as many people as I can about Henrietta Lacks because the world should know her name.

Henrietta Lacks: Who Was She?

Born in 1920, Henrietta grew up in Clover, Virginia where she worked as a tobacco farmer and met her future husband David “Day” Lacks, with whom she would go on to share five children: Lawrence, Elsie,  David “Sonny”, Deborah, and Joseph Lacks. The Lacks family eventually relocated to Baltimore, Maryland in the 1940s, and only a decade later in 1951, Henrietta would receive a cervical cancer diagnosis from John Hopkins Hospital at the age of 31. While in Johns Hopkins care she received radium tube inserts to treat her cancer, a common practice for cancer treatment at the time, from January to August of 1951. In August of 1951, she would get admitted to the hospital at her request for severe abdominal pain. Henrietta would not leave the hospital alive, as her cancer metastasized (spread) throughout her body. She died October 4th, 1951 at the age of 31.

The Truth About HeLa Cells

During her treatments, doctors took cell samples from Henrietta without her knowledge. They took a sample of healthy tissue and cancerous tissue that would go on to Dr. George Otto Gey’s research lab, where the cancerous cells would become known as HeLa cells. Gey, a doctor and cancer researcher at the time, made the remarkable discovery that Henrietta’s cells, unlike other cells he studied, not only reproduced at a high rate but could also be kept alive in a lab environment. This discovery allowed for a more in-depth examination of the cells in biomedical research, something not possible before because at the time, most cells did not live beyond a few days in a lab environment. Henrietta’s cells would go on to get cloned in 1955 and then mailed around the world to researchers as they pursued different research endeavors. By 2010, almost 11,000 patents existed involving HeLa cells (Batts). While all of this information sounds great on the surface, the story takes a very sad turn here.

As mentioned, doctors took Henrietta’s cell samples without her permission or knowledge, a common practice at the time on top of lack of informed consent. It did not stop there, though. Henrietta Lacks never knew about her remarkable cells. She did not know that they reproduced the way they did or how did not die in the lab like so many cells before hers did and what that meant nor did anyone in her family until decades after her death.

In fact, right after Henrietta died, Gey’s lab wanted to collect additional samples from Henrietta’s body and thus asked doctors to request Day’s, Henrietta’s husband, permission to do an autopsy as to do one without his written permission would be illegal. He initially said no, but when asked again by doctors, this time adding that it could help his children in the future, Day agreed and signed an autopsy permission form.  Not even here did doctors inform Henrietta’s living family that her cells lived on in Gey’s lab and became monumental in medical research, and the autopsy served to further help his research endeavors. It would over two decades for anyone in the Lacks family to know about HeLa cells.

In 1973, over two decades after Henrietta’s diagnosis and death, her daughter-in-law Bobbette Lacks learned about HeLa cells through someone working at the National Cancer Institute in Washington D.C. When Bobbette learned that her mother-in-law’s cells lived in biomedical research for the last several decades, she described it as a nightmare. Not only did a part of Henrietta live on without the family’s knowledge, but it further confirmed the fears of many black people at the time regarding hospitals and doctors.

Medical Superstitions Confirmed

In Bobbette’s life, she was raised to not go anywhere near John Hopkins Hospital on account of the facility seizing black people of the street and experimenting on them. She claimed that “when it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps, or Hopkins might get us” (Skloot 165). These types of stories were not exclusive to the Lacks family. Since the 1800s, black families passed down tales of the “night doctors” who would kidnap black people for the sole purpose of experimentation. These tales did not come close to fictitious. Doctors tested drugs and surgical techniques on black people and slaves, often without anesthesia, and in the 1900s people exhumed black corpses from their graves in the interest of scientific research. Therefore, when Johns Hopkins emerged in a poor black neighborhood, it made sense that residents believed it served scientists more than anything.

At Johns Hopkins specifically, the hospital served as a charity hospital to black citizens who could not afford their medical bills. When it came to doctors in public wards, most of which held predominately black patients who received free treatments, they deemed these patients as their personal human test subjects. Gey himself referred to himself as a vulture, “…feeding on human specimens almost constantly” (Skloot). Couple this proclamation and the history of black people’s mistreatment in medicine since slavery with Gey using Henrietta’s cells without her consent, not informing her family, and taking additional samples from her dead body, Bobbette’s description of finding out about HeLa cells as a “nightmare” barely scratches the surface of just how shocking and horrifying the discovery was.

Post-HeLa Discovery

After the Lacks’s discovery, the family scrambled for answers. Scientists reached out to them for blood samples, which they donated, thinking it would tell them about cancer risks in the family after what doctors told Day way back in 1951; that an autopsy would help his children in the future. In reality, the blood samples served scientists in a contamination problem in Human Gene Mapping, the first step towards the Human Genome Project at Yale University. Scientists needed to identify the HeLa cells and doctors suggested getting DNA samples from Henrietta’s immediate family to create a map of her genes (Skloot 181). Furthermore, the family went on to learn that HeLa cells would get bought and sold for profit amongst scientists, while they themselves could not afford proper health insurance, and that Henrietta’s medical records managed to get published without the family’s permission in 1985 (Skloot 335). Ever since, the Lacks family worked with scientists and authors, like Rebecca Skloot, to ensure that Henrietta’s story got heard and that the same injustices did not happen to other people, especially people of color and other minorities. Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, worked to create the Henrietta Lacks Foundation that provides scholarships to Henrietta’s descendants as a way for the various institutions and general public who continue to benefit from the HeLa cell line a way to give back to the family and help them receive opportunities that the family did not get in the past.

How These Injustices Managed to Happen

Henrietta went in for her initial doctor appointment and received her diagnosis and subsequent treatment in the 1950s, during the Jim Crow era. Furthermore, for the longest time, medical laws regarding informed consent, privacy, and using medical samples for commercial purposes worked against patients and in favor of doctors and scientists. In 2021, clearer legislation is in place to protect patient privacy, such as HIPPA, and federal law now states that if a patient or donor’s tissues get taken for research with their name attached to it, researchers must obtain consent, but no federal law exists that clearly states that we own our own cells and tissues, leaving some loopholes in the system for researchers.

For example, in 1990, the Supreme Court of California ruled that a patient’s discarded blood and tissue samples are not the personal property of the patient, and therefore they do not possess any right to share in any profits made from commercial products or research. The decision came after John Moore sued his doctor, David Golde, and UCLA Medical Center after he learned that they made a patent on his cell line, named “Mo” without his knowledge. The patent emerged after Golde discovered Moore’s cells contained a protein that stimulated the growth of white blood cells following the removal of Moore’s spleen due to complications from cancer. Moore loses his case and eventually died in 2001. Today, his cell line gets estimated at $3 billion.

In Conclusion

When you think about the HeLa cell line, remember that those cells came from a real woman seventy years ago, something that many scientists failed to consider as they bought and sold her cells for research and profit while the Lacks family knew nothing of the HeLa cell line. In her life, Henrietta Lacks lived her life as a loving mother who enjoyed dancing in the kitchen with her children, painting her nails shades of red, cooking for her family, and left behind family members who she packed lunches for and set up spaces for them to sleep when they needed a place to stay. The same family members who abandoned a workday to donate blood to Henrietta during her final stay in the hospital.  Without the cells of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who was failed by history and the science world for the longest time, our world would look much different.

Without Henrietta Lack’s and her cells, society’s modern medicine and technology would be nowhere near as advanced as it is without the HeLa cell line. Between the Lacks family and various institutions, more people know about Henrietta Lacks and her story. However, the medical world still contains a ton of prejudices against people of color, especially black people. The most recent example concerns how the COVID-19 undeniably disproportionately affects black communities around the world, and yet a black woman’s cells from 70 years ago helped fuel COVID-19 research that led scientists to develop the vaccines to eradicate the virus. 

Works Cited

Batts, Denise Watson. "Cancer cells killed Henrietta Lacks - then made her immortal", The Virginia Pilot, https://www.pilotonline.com/news/health/article_17bd351a-f606-54fb-a499-b6a84cb3a286.html.  Accessed 13 March 2020.

Jackson, Noel. “Vessels for Collective Progress: the use of HeLa cells in COVID-19 research”, Harvard, https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2020/vessels-for-collective-progress-the-use-of-hela-cells-in-covid-19-research/. Accessed 13 March 2020.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Broadway Books, 2010.