Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Photo of Henrietta Lacks from Oregon State University is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

Who the cell is Henrietta Lacks?

If you think of immortality you might think of cyborgs, vampires and zombies (well, it is Halloween this weekend!). Basically the stuff of sci-fi and fantasy. Well, we’ve got something far better – the true and remarkable story of a woman who achieved a kind of immortality – through her own cells.

Henrietta Lacks, from Maryland USA, was a young Black mother of five who sadly died at the age of 31 from cervical cancer, 70 years ago. Back then only a small number of hospitals would see or treat Black people, and this hospital was also home to a cancer research department. Unbeknown to Henrietta, her surgeon (Howard Jones) took a tissue sample and handed it over to a researcher. He had no idea that this little sample would literally change the world *

*Taking someone’s cells without their consent is illegal these days. There has been controversy about the taking of Henrietta’s cells without her, or her family’s, consent and you will see why when you read on.

A ‘HeLa’va set of cells!

HeLa cells - photo from Wellcome collection
HeLa Cells Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Collecting cells for research is essential to help us understand disease and to develop new treatments. All cells are important, but Henrietta’s cells are extra special. They show an extraordinary ability to not only survive, but continuously multiply!

It has blown and baffled the minds of scientists across the world, but Henrietta’s cells are still alive today! They copy themselves and grow (we call this replicating) so well that if you laid all of Henrietta’s cells, since that first sample, end to end, you could wrap them around the earth 3 times! Not only that, these cells have allowed scientists to:

  • Develop the polio vaccine, cancer treatments and most recently the COVID-19 vaccine!
  • Identify and isolate the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Make breakthroughs in reproductive health studies that led to in vitro fertilization (more commonly known as IVF)

And that’s just the tip of the immuno-research iceberg! Around 70,000 studies have been published involving the use of Henrietta’s cells (formally known as HeLa cells) and they’re in widespread use throughout the field of immunology. In fact, at least two Nobel Prizes have been awarded recently for research involving these cells.

Hidden Henrietta

Drawing and text about Henrietta Lacks on a wall. Photo by Crawford Brian
“Henrietta Lacks” by Crawford Brian is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0

You’d think that this unique set of cells and their origin would be celebrated to the rafters in the science community and sure, the scientific accomplishments have been. But until recently, Henrietta Lacks’ remarkable contribution along with details of her race and gender had remained hidden – an accepted practice at the time the prevented her getting the recognition she so deserved. She never even got a say in whether the doctor could even collect the sample and share it. The worst part is that some science companies and institutions profited from HeLa cells but Mrs Lack’s family received no share of this.

Even after Henrietta’s cells helped millions of people all over the world, it took decades for her contribution to be fully recognised and for her family to know what a huge legacy she has left for us all.

Correcting history

The science community has acknowledged that it can and must do better – the World Health Organisation has honoured her posthumously for her contribution to medical science and has said that it will honour her legacy by working harder to help people with the same or similar background. More importantly, Mrs Lacks’s descendants now have a say in whether scientists can use her cells and are able to take legal action against any unauthorised use. In 2020, for the first time, a research institute paid the Lacks family for the use of Henrietta’s HeLa cells. These gestures are clearly very late and only go a small way to repaying the huge debt that we all owe Henrietta, but we hope that it is the start of proper recognition for the enormous contribution she made to science and to society.

Who was Henrietta?

Henrietta’s family has also provided a few facts about her so that we can also celebrate the person she was as well as her amazing cells – we’re sharing them here as part of that celebration:

  • She was a tobacco farmer
  • She was one heck of a stylish lady!
  • She loved to cook and spaghetti was one of her favourites
  • She was a bit of a groover and often danced with one of her five children in her arms
  • She was warm and welcoming – her door was always open to anyone in need

We’re delighted to share her story with you and we can imagine she would be absolutely thrilled that she’s helped so many people all over the world and continues to do so. How’s that for immortality?!

If you’d like to learn more about preserving Henrietta Lack’s Legacy, check out this brilliant TedTalk given by her grandson and great granddaughter David Lacks Jr. and Veronica Robinson

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