Unsung Hero: Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman whose cancer cells were the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized group of cells. Those are the cells that keep reproducing and live on forever. Also, her cells were the most important cell lines in history of medical research. Henrietta, also known as “Hennie,” was born in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1st, 1920.
Henrietta Lacks first met her future husband when she was divided up among her siblings, and Henrietta was placed with her uncle. Since her uncle owned a farm, Henrietta was required to work in it with David. She worked long, tiring hours without pay. Also, because Henrietta did not go to school, she also worked on the farm during the harvest season. After living with, and sharing a room with her cousin David, they both fell in love with each other. Henrietta married David Lacks, and the two became a couple at the age of 21. Hennie lived with her spouse, David Lacks in 1941, then the two moved to Baltimore. Hennie and David had several children: David Jr., Deborah, Elsie, Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman, and Lawrence Lacks. Unfortunately, their daughter Elsie, died at the age of 15 from developmental disabilities. “Henrietta Lacks was feeling discomfort in her lower abdomen even before she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. When she expressed her concern, the doctors told Henrietta that she was feeling the pain from a child forming inside of her.”
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She was not satisfied and didn’t believe that was the answer to her problem. Later Hennie gave birth, but even after that, she still felt discomfort. A few months after the birth of her child, Henrietta became even more concerned about her pain. She explained how this “knot in her lower abdomen” felt like an “excruciating pain” to the doctors, and they insisted that she came in for a visit. Finally, the doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, George Gey, diagnosed her with cervical cancer. Henrietta showed her best friend Sadie how her skin had turned to “coco-brown to black as coal.” (https://books.google.com, 2010) This was a symptom of her spreading cancer tumor. Sadly, Henrietta died of cervical cancer on October 4th, 1951.
enrietta was 31 years old when she died. She stayed in the hospital for African Americans that at the time was called the “Negro Hospital.” The cancer cells won this painful “battle,” and Henrietta’s body finally lay in eternal rest. The doctors working on Henrietta during her sickness, extracted some of her cancerous cells from her cervix, and without asking permission from any of her family members, started using them for experimental treatments. George Gey, Hennie’s doctor before she died, expected her cells to die before the next morning, just like everyone else’s. But the next morning “Dr. Gey looked into his lab and saw Henrietta’s cells had multiplied at an uncontrollable rate, almost as fast as they do when they are inside the body. As it stated in https://hub.jhu.edu/2018/10/06/henrietta-lacks, the doctors at the hospital decided to name these cells the “HeLa” cells.”
The HeLa cells stood for Henrietta Lacks, the first two letters of each of her names. Once the hospital realized how important these cells could be, they started giving them away to other hospitals for money. Soon, the whole world had HeLa cells in almost every lab. Scientists discovered many cures for diseases from these ever reproducing HeLa cells. Henrietta Lacks’ HeLa cells provided an open door for the doctors not only in America, but the entire world. Without knowing it, she has helped save millions of people diagnosed with cervical cancer with her immortal cells.
I chose Henrietta Lacks because I find it fascinating that her cells played an essential part of scientific history, and yet very few know about her life hardships and sufferings. A few years back, my father brought home the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and I immediately became intrigued. Since my dad’s colleagues teach about Henrietta Lacks in their Biomedical Program at MHS, he was able to give me access to the lab room and her HeLa cells. Lately, I have been increasingly interested in the book and I have found myself reading the book for fun ever since then. Also, Henrietta Lacks never received any awards or recognitions, so I believe she should have something for her amazing acts. Even to this day, Henrietta’s HeLa cells are saving lives. Her cells were the first human cells to be cloned and the first cells in the world to provide such critical research to humanity. It is this very reason, Henrietta Lacks is my choice to honor for Black History Month.