Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks the Matriarch of Modern Medicine

If you heard my story last week about February being Black History month, you’ll know I want to do a weekly story on an influential black person, whether they’re famous or local. For this week, I wanted to talk about Henrietta (or Hennie) Lacks. Although she wasn’t a local to Bath County, she was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. Hennie and her husband David were both generational tobacco farmers in rural Virginia. In 1941, the family relocated to Baltimore, Maryland where David worked in a steel mill while Henrietta stayed home to care for their growing family. 10 years later in 1951, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at John Hopkins University Hospital, one of the very few hospitals that provided free medical services to black people. 

However, since these treatments were free, many white physicians and scientists felt justified in using patients for research in lieu of payment for care. This was not disclosed to black patients and without consent, Henrietta’s cells were harvested from tissue removed during her biopsy. 

Prior studies suggested cells outside the body only survived a few months, but Mrs. Lacks’ cells defied research and represented the world’s first immortal cell line. Known as “HeLa” cells, their survival was studied extensively and used to make other cells immortal. Nearly 60 thousand research publications and 20 thousand scientific patent submissions have been based on the HeLa cells, which were used to develop the polio vaccine, more effective HIV therapies and chemotherapies for cancers, and also to improve Vitro Fertilization. HeLa cells were also used in an NIH-led project to map the entire human genome. In fact, coronavirus vaccines that are currently being administered were also developed with the help of HeLa cells. 

Although known today as the “Matriarch of Modern Science” it was not until 1973 that the Lacks family was made aware of the use and immortality of Henrietta’s cells by scientists. By that point, HeLa had already become a multi-billion-dollar industry, for which they were paid nothing. Looking at her mother’s cells through the microscope for the first time, Deborah Lacks said quote “Johns Hopkins is a school for learning, and that’s important, but this is my mother. Nobody seemed to get that.” Unquote.

In 2010, Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” helped the Lacks family start the Henrietta Lacks Foundation. 

Henrietta unknowingly contributed more to humanity than we could ever fully understand. 

A quote from Marcus Garvey says, “A people without the knowledge of their past history origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”


Stay tuned for another story like this next week on Allegheny Mountain Radio.

For AMR News, I’m Abby Dufour 

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Abby Dufour

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