Henrietta Lacks was born August 1, 1920, into a family of impoverished tobacco farmers in Roanoke, Virginia. She died at the age of 31 from the effects of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951, after treatment in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. But Henrietta Lacks’s cells did not die. A sample taken from her without permission became the immortal He-La cell line used for extensive biomedical research and then commodified in a multi-million dollar industry. Henrietta Lacks’s story was resurrected in magnificent detail in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the 2010 bestseller by freelance science author Rebecca Skloot.
Born Loretta Pleasant (it is not clear how Henrietta became her first name), Henrietta’s mother, Eliza, died in childbirth in 1924. Henrietta’s father, John Pleasant (1881-1969), took the children to Clover, Virginia to be raised among relatives. Henrietta married David “Day” Lacks (1915-2002) in 1941. Following the Depression and between the two World Wars, opportunities for African Americans opened in the steel mills in Bethlehem, Maryland, near Baltimore, and in 1941, Henrietta and David left tobacco farming with the two children and joined the Great Migration. They bought a home in Turner Station, which is now Dundalk, Maryland.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and was treated at the segregated Johns Hopkins Hospital with radium tube inserts, a standard treatment at the time. As a matter of routine, samples of her cervix were removed without permission. George Otto Gey (1899-1970), a cancer researcher at Hopkins had been trying for years to study cancer cells, but his task proved difficult because cells died in vitro (outside the body). The sample of cells Henrietta Lacks’s doctor made available to Gey, however, did not die. Instead, they continued to divide and multiply. The He-La cell line was born. He-La was a conflagration of Henrietta Lacks.
Permission for doctors to use anyone’s cells or body tissue at that time was traditionally not obtained, especially from patients seeking care in public hospitals. The irony was that Johns Hopkins (1795-1873), an abolitionist and philanthropist, founded the hospital in 1889 to make medical care available to the poor. Informed Consent as a doctrine came into practice in the late 1970s, nearly three decades after Henrietta Lack’s death.
Gey was the consummate professional biologist and used Henrietta Lacks’s cells in the sole interests of finding a cure for cancer. With no desire for profit, he made the He-La cells available to all interested in biological research, including virologist Jonas Salk (1914-1995). The He-La cell line, in turn, allowed the discovery of the Salk vaccine which led to the near worldwide eradication of polio.
The genetic revolution exploded almost immediately following her death. Molecular biologist James B. Watson (1928- ) and geneticist Francis Crick (1916-2004) created the double-helix model in the discovery of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953. In the end, over 60,000 studies were published by researchers who use the He-Le cells, advancing their careers, the field of science that they were associated with, and the professional prestige of the institutions that employed them. During that time the Lacks family received no compensation for the usage of He-La cells.
- Hopkins Medince