On Feb. 1, 1951, Henrietta Lacks–mother of five, native of rural southern Virginia, resident of the Turner Station neighborhood in Dundalk–went to Johns Hopkins Hospital with a worrisome symptom: spotting on her underwear. She was quickly diagnosed with cervical cancer. Eight months later, despite surgery and radiation treatment, the Sparrows Point shipyard worker’s wife died at age 31 as she lay in the hospital’s segregated ward for blacks.
Not all of Henrietta Lacks died that October morning, though. She unwittingly left behind a piece of herself that still lives today.
While she was in Hopkins’ care, researchers took a fragment of Lacks’ tumor and sliced it into little cubes, which they bathed in nutrients and placed in an incubator. The cells, dubbed “HeLa” for Henrietta Lacks, multiplied as no other cells outside the human body had before, doubling their numbers daily. Their dogged growth spawned a breakthrough in cell research; never before could investigators reliably experiment on such cell cultures because they would weaken and die before meaningful results could be obtained. On the day of Henrietta’s death, the head of Hopkins’ tissue-culture research lab, Dr. George Gey, went before TV cameras, held up a tube of HeLa cells, and announced that a new age of medical research had begun–one that, someday, could produce a cure for cancer.
When he discovered HeLa could survive even shipping via U.S. mail, Gey sent his prize culture to colleagues around the country. They allowed HeLa to grow a little, and then sent some to their colleagues. Demand quickly rose, so the cells were put into mass production and traveled around the globe–even into space, on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity.
In the half-century since Henrietta Lacks’ death, her tumor cells–whose combined mass is probably much larger than Lacks was when she was alive–have continually been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits. Dr. Jonas Salk used HeLa to help develop his polio vaccine in the early ’50s. The cells are so hardy that they took over other tissue cultures, researchers discovered in the 1970s, leading to reforms in how such cultures are handled. In the biomedical world, HeLa cells are as famous as lab rats and petri dishes.
Yet Henrietta Lacks herself remains shrouded in obscurity. Gey, of course, knew HeLa’s origins, but he believed confidentiality was paramount–so for years, Henrietta’s family didn’t know her cells still lived, much less how important they had become. After Gey died in 1970, the secret came out. But it was not until 1975, when a scientifically savvy fellow dinner-party guest asked family members if they were related to the mother of the HeLa cell, that Lacks’ descendants came to understand her critical role in medical research.
The concept was mind-blowing–in a sense, it seemed to Lacks’ family, she was being kept alive in the service of science. “It just kills me,” says Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks-Pullum, now 52 and still living in Baltimore, “to know my mother’s cells are all over the world.”
In the 27 years since the Lacks family serendipitously learned of Henrietta’s unwitting contribution, little has been done to honor her. “Henrietta Lacks Day” is celebrated in Turner Station each year on Feb. 1. In 1996, prompted by Atlanta’s Morehouse College, that city’s mayor proclaimed Oct. 11 Henrietta Lacks Day. The following year, Congress passed a resolution in her memory sponsored by Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.), whose 2nd District includes Turner Station, and the British Broadcasting Corp. produced a documentary on her remarkable story. Beyond that, however, virtually nothing has been done to celebrate Lacks’ contribution–not even by Hopkins, which gained immeasurable prestige from Gey’s work with her cells.
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It is a shame that this isn’t common knowledge. It is a shame that her family had no that this was going on. It is a shame that she most likely received insufficient care in the black ward of the hospital. It is a beautiful thing that she lived and made such a contribution to medical advancement.