Henrietta Lacks

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Henrietta Lacks saved millions of lives. For more than 60 years, she has been credited for helping cure polio as well as developing treatments for cancer. 

The only thing is... she never knew about her contribution to medical science!

Loretta Pleasant (she later changed her name to Henrietta) was an African-American woman born in the US state of Virginia in 1920. When she was four-years-old, her mother died giving birth to her tenth child. Unable to care for his large family, Henrietta's father sent his children to live among various relatives. Henrietta went to live with her grandfather, who raised her in a log cabin that sixty years before had been the slave quarters of a Southern plantation.

Like most members of her family, Henrietta went to work rather than to school. She helped to farm acres of Virginia tobacco fields. Life was hard. Henrietta gave birth to her first son when she was only 14; a daughter followed when she was 18. She later married their father, Daniel Lacks. Their daughter was developmentally-challenged, or "deaf and dumb" in the language of the time.

To make a better life for their young family, the Lacks moved to Baltimore in 1941 where Daniel found wartime employment at the Bethlehem Steel mill. Henrietta and Daniel were amazed to live in a modern city, and with the booming wartime economy, the family felt the promise of prosperity for the first time. Three more children joined Henrietta and Daniel by 1950. 

Then tragedy struck.

In early 1951, with a three-month baby at home, Henrietta was admitted into John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the only hospital within miles willing to care for blacks, due to abnormal pain in her abdomen. The Lacks had no health care, so Henrietta was admitted as a charity patient.

The doctors discovered that Henrietta had the most aggressive case of cervical cancer they'd ever seen. Her cancer cells spread rapidly, causing tumors to develop in almost all of her organs. The doctors suggested full-body radiation treatment to try to kill the malignant cells. And at some point during the course of her treatments, doctors removed two cervical samples, passing them to Dr. George Otto Gey for testing.

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Dr. Gey was a cancer researcher. He had been searching for the perfect cell sample from which to learn about how cancer operated and with which to test potential new treatments. Henrietta's cancer cells multiplied so quickly and were so strong that they could be used repeatedly to test cures. Also, unlike most cells, which survived only a few days, Henrietta's cells were far more durable. This is was the breakthrough Gey had been looking for. He named the cell line "HeLa cells," derived from Henrietta Lacks.

The only trouble was, the cells were taken without Henrietta's knowledge or permission. 

Before 1951 came to a close, Henrietta died. That same day, October 4, 1951, Dr. Gey appeared on national television with a vial of Henrietta's cells. George did not name or credit Henrietta, but promised that the sample would one day cure cancer.

The HeLa cells initiated a new era of scientific research. Jonas Salk used Henrietta's fast-growing cancer cells to grow the polio virus, allowing a vaccine to be developed in 1955. By the late 1950s, HeLa cells were being massed produced and shipped to scientists around the world to grow viruses, develop vaccines, and fight diseases.

No one ever told Henrietta's grieving family, however, that their loved one lived on. In 1975, 24 years after she died, a young scientist was having dinner with Henrietta's oldest son and his wife. Recognizing their name, he asked if they were related to Henrietta, whose name he remembered from his days in the lab. When they said, "Yes," he informed them that their mother's cells were being used to save lives all over the world.

The Lacks family was glad that their mother's cells had traveled the globe on a philanthropic mission. But they were hurt and offended that the hospital had never bothered to tell them. They also wondered if others had profited financially from the medical revolution initiated by their mother's cells, while they had not. While grateful to have helped humanity, they resented being used by white doctors without their consent.

Can you believe that before Henrietta's Story came to light,
the Lacks family could not afford health insurance? 
- Lonnee Hamilton, Nominator

But the fact is, sixty years ago, there was no established practice of seeking permission to take tissue for scientific research purposes. Thanks also to Henrietta, informed medical consent is now a reality as is the patient's right to choose what happens to his or her own body.

Henrietta Lacks never consented to being a lab experiment. She never knew about contribution to medical science. However, organizations that have profited from HeLa have since publicly recognized Henrietta Lacks's gift to humanity. The Lacks family has been honored at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Foundation for Cancer Research. Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD, USA, granted Henrietta Lacks a posthumous honorary degree. In 2010, Dr. Roland Pattillo of Morehouse donated a headstone for Lacks's unmarked grave.

It is now our turn to honor Henrietta Lacks, and her biographer, Rebecca Skloot, who started a The Henrietta Lacks Foundation with proceeds from her very successful book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, to benefit individuals and their families who have made important contributions to scientific research without personal gain. We are thrilled to name them as Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHeroes this Women's History Month 2018. Thanks to Lonnee Hamilton of Los Angeles, CA, and London, UK, for bringing Henrietta's extraordinary story, and legacy, to our attention.

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