The Story of Henrietta Lacks

Many people may not know who Henrietta Lacks is, or was. Henrietta was the person that all HeLa cells originated from, and with these cells science has progressed eons faster than what it would have without these crucial, cancerous tissues.

Henrietta Lacks was a colored woman born Aug. 1 1920. She married her cousin, David “Day” Lacks on April 10 1941, birthing five children before her fatal encounter with cervical cancer in 1951, by gynecologist Howard Jones at John Hopkins Hospital. 

At the time, John Hopkins was one of the only hospitals that would accept poor colored people into their care. With this knowledge it becomes very clear as to why the doctors did not ask consent before Henrietta’s cells were taken from her without her knowledge.

Henrietta Lacks died Aug. 4 1951, but her cells continued to live on. After her cells were taken, George Gey, a cell biologist at Hopkins, cultured them in his lab and was astonished by how quickly they reproduced, leading to the development of the first “immortal” cells.

These cells have been used in nearly every type of DNA and tissue research scientists have conducted. From the cure for Polio to testing how cells react to zero gravity environments, researchers have continued to use these cells, even to this day.

This begs the question, though: why is Henrietta Lacks still a mystery to most people? Well, Henrietta Lacks was not officially recognized as the producer of HeLa until the late 20th century. There are many reasons as to why this is.

One is that Gey was not willing to give out the actual name of the woman responsible for HeLa. Other reasons include racial stigmas at the time and how multiple people did not want to believe that a colored woman would have been able to produce such cells. 

No matter the reason for her name being lost, Henrietta Lacks and the Lacks family may never have the recognition they deserve. However, if anyone is interested in learning more of the Lacks’ story, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a popular reference.

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