While you’ve probably never heard her name, you’ve definitely benefited from the legacy of Henrietta Lacks. She was not a trailblazer in the traditional sense. Her legacy came after her death and took on a life of its own.
Born August 1, 1920 in Roanoke Virginia. Henrietta’s short life was marked by poverty and more than her fair share of pain. A few months after the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta sought medical treatment for a “knot” in her womb at Johns Hopkins because that was the only hospital in her area that would treat African Americans. There, doctors discovered a mass on her cervix, took a biopsy, and gave a small sample of that biopsy to George Gey, a physician and cancer researcher. In his lab, Gey was interested in how Henrietta’s cells continued to grow and multiply. This was a major breakthrough for researchers as previous cells cultured for laboratory studies only survived a few days—not long enough to conduct long-term experiments.
While Gey was busy developing a viable cell line from her tissue, Henrietta was undergoing painful and ultimately unsuccessful treatment for her cancer. After her death at the age of 31, Gey took another sample of her tissue and continued to cultivate a cell line that came to be called HeLa cells after his method for labeling samples using the first two letters of patients’ first and last names. These cells enabled researchers to conduct studies and develop treatment on living human cells.
In addition to being used to create the polio vaccine, HeLa cells were mass produced and sent to scientists around the world for research on everything from cancer and AIDS to gene mapping and product testing. They were the first human cells successfully cloned, are cited in almost 11,000 patents, and are still one of the most robust cell lines used in medical research today.
Despite the great advancements made through Henrietta’s unwitting contribution to modern medical science, it took almost two decades for her life and legacy to be recognized. In 1996, Morehouse School of Medicine held its first HeLa Women’s Health Conference to recognize Henrietta Lacks, her cell line, and “the valuable contribution made by African Americans to medical research and clinical practice.” In 2010 Johns Hopkins established an annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series and has since named a building on the medical campus in her honor.
While these accolades are wonderful and the advancements made possible through her cell line are incalculable, it’s important to not let them dismiss the tremendous suffering she endured. Though countless lives have been saved through treatments developed through her cells, her pain was real and her loss was devastating to her five young children. Today we remember Henrietta Lacks and honor her immortal legacy.