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.