Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Henrietta Lacks was a thirty-one year old woman that visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951. She was an African-American mother of five. Johns Hopkins was the only hospital in the area that treated African Americans, although the hospital was still segregated at the time. While there, doctors confirmed she had cervical cancer. Lacks received numerous treatments including radium. Unfortunately, Henrietta died on October 4, 1951 from terminal uremia. This is a condition that caused blood poisoning from toxins that would normally be flushed out when a person urinated.

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Prior to her death, doctors took a sample of the cancer cells and gave them to George Guy, a researcher at Johns Hopkins who was studying cervical cancer. Dr. Guy had not had any success with keeping cancer cells alive until the sample from Henrietta Lacks. He and his associates soon noticed that not only were the cells surviving, they were doubling every 20 to 24 hours. Within days, Dr. Guy had so many cells he chose to share them with other universities and researchers. He named the cells HeLa and gave them away, never asking for money in return. Since that time, HeLa cells have been used to research many different diseases including cancer, HIV, and even polio.

When the polio epidemic was just beginning, researchers were having a difficult time creating a vaccine. One of the biggest problems was the lack of polio itself. Soon they discovered that injecting polio into the HeLa cells would not kill the cells, but would in fact clone the polio to create more. This allowed vaccine developers a chance to perfect the vaccine, and save countless lives.

For many years the HeLa patient was kept confidential. No one but Dr. Guy knew the original patient’s name. He even gave a fake name at one time, Helen Lane. Eventually in the 1970’s, it was revealed that the true identity was Henrietta Lacks. Her family had never known the biopsy was taken, and subsequently never knew the impact she had on science and medicine. Since that time, hospitals have been required to get informed consent before using biopsies for research purposes.


Abumrad, J. (Host). (2010, May 16). Henrietta’s Tumor [Audio blog post]. Retrieved March 9, 2019, from https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/91716-henriettas-tumor

Butanis, B. (2017, April 12). The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/index.html

Zielinski, S. (2010, January 22). Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/henrietta-lacks-immortal-cells-6421299/

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Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells. (2019, Oct 20). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/henrietta-lacks-and-the-hela-cells/