Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

A black-and-white photo of Lacks smiling

Henrietta Lacks circa 1945–1951
Born Loretta Pleasant
(1920-08-01)August 1, 1920
Roanoke, Virginia
Died October 4, 1951(1951-10-04) (aged 31)
Baltimore, Maryland
Monuments Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School; historical marker at Clover, Virginia
Occupation Tobacco farmer
Height 5 ft 2 in (1.57 m)[1]
Spouse(s) David Lacks (1941–1951; her death)
Children Lawrence Lacks
Elsie Lacks
David "Sonny" Lacks, Jr.
Deborah Lacks Pullum
Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joseph Lacks)
Parent(s) Eliza (1886–1924) and John Randall Pleasant I (1881–1969)

Henrietta Lacks (née Loretta Pleasant; August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951[2]) was an African American woman who was the unwitting donor of cells from her cancerous tumor that was biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. These cells were cultured by George Otto Gey to create the first human immortal cell line, now known as the HeLa cell line, which is still used for medical research.[3]

Personal life

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920,[2][4] in Roanoke, Virginia, to Eliza and Johnny Pleasant.[5] Her family is uncertain how her name changed from Loretta to Henrietta, but she was nicknamed Hennie.[2] When Lacks was four years old in 1924, her mother died giving birth to her tenth child.[5] Unable to care for the children alone after his wife's death, Lacks' father moved the family to Clover, Virginia, where the children were distributed among relatives. Lacks ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, in a two-story log cabin that was once the slave quarters on the plantation that had been owned by Lacks' white great-grandfather and great-uncle.[2] She shared a room with her nine-year-old cousin and future husband, David "Day" Lacks (1915–2002).[5]

Like most members of her family living in Clover, Lacks worked as a tobacco farmer starting from an early age. In 1935, when Lacks was 14 years old, she gave birth to a son, Lawrence Lacks. In 1939, her daughter Elsie Lacks (1939–1955) was born. Both children were fathered by Day Lacks. Elsie Lacks had developmental disabilities and was described by the family as "different" or "deaf and dumb."[2]

On April 10, 1941, Day and Henrietta Lacks were married in Halifax County, Virginia.[2] Later that year, their cousin, Fred Garrett, convinced the couple to leave the tobacco farm in Virginia and move to Maryland where Day Lacks could work at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrow's Point. Not long after they moved to Maryland, Garrett was called to fight in World War II. With the savings gifted to him by Garret, Day Lacks was able to purchase a house at 713 New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turner Station. Now part of Dundalk, Maryland, Turner Station was one of the oldest and largest African American communities in Baltimore County at that time.[6][7]

Living in Maryland, Henrietta and Day Lacks had three more children, David "Sonny" Lacks, Jr. (b. 1947), Deborah Lacks Pullum (born Deborah Lacks; 1949–2009), and Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joseph Lacks; 1950). Lacks gave birth to her last child at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in November 1950, four and a half months before she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.[2] Around the same time, Elsie Lacks was placed in the Hospital for the Negro Insane, later renamed Crownsville Hospital Center, where she died in 1955.[2]


Diagnosis and treatment

On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins, the only hospital in the area that treated black patients, because she felt a "knot" in her womb. She had previously told her cousins about the "knot" and they assumed correctly that she was pregnant. But after giving birth, Lacks had a severe hemorrhage. Her primary care doctor tested her for syphilis, which came back negative, and referred her back to Johns Hopkins. There, her doctor, Howard W. Jones, took a biopsy of the mass on Lacks's cervix for laboratory testing. Soon after, Lacks was told that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix.[8] In 1970, physicians discovered that she had been misdiagnosed and actually had an adenocarcinoma of the cervix. This was a common mistake at the time and the treatment would not have differed.[9]

Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts as an inpatient and discharged a few days later with instructions to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up. During her treatments, two samples were taken from Lacks's cervix without her permission or knowledge; one sample was of healthy tissue and the other was cancerous.[10] These samples were given to George Otto Gey, a physician and cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. The cells from the cancerous sample eventually became known as the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in contemporary biomedical research.[2]

Death and burial

On August 8, 1951, Lacks, who was 31 years old, went to Johns Hopkins for a routine treatment session and asked to be admitted due to continued severe abdominal pain. She received blood transfusions and remained at the hospital until October 4, 1951, when she died of uremic poisoning.[11] A partial autopsy showed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body.[2]

Lacks Town Road in Clover, Virginia—along which Lacks grew up and near where she is buried

Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery in a place called Lackstown in Halifax County, Virginia. Lackstown is the name that was given to the land in Clover, Virginia that was originally owned by white, land- and slave-owning members of the Lacks family before the Civil War. Later generations gave the land to the many black members of the Lacks family who were descendants of African slaves and their white owners.[2]

Lacks' exact burial location is unknown, but the family believes that it is within a few feet of her mother's grave site, which for decades, was the only one in the family to have been marked with a tombstone.[2][11][12] In 2010, Roland Pattillo, a faculty member of the Morehouse School of Medicine who had worked with George Gey and knew the Lacks family,[13] donated a headstone for Lacks.[14] This prompted her family to raise money for a headstone for Elsie Lacks as well, which was dedicated on the same day.[14] Henrietta Lacks's headstone is shaped like a book and contains an epitaph written by her grandchildren that reads:[2]

Henrietta Lacks, August 1, 1920 - October 4, 1951
 In loving memory of a phenomenal woman,
wife and mother who touched the lives of many.
Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal
 cells will continue to help mankind forever.
Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family[1]

  1. ^ McLaughlin, Tom (2010-05-31). "An epitaph, at last | South Boston Virginia News". TheNewsRecord.com. Retrieved 2012-12-21. 

Medical and scientific research

Dividing HeLa cells in culture. Cells can be seen in metaphase and telophase.
See also: HeLa

George Otto Gey, the first researcher to study Lacks's cancerous cells, observed that her cells were unique in that they reproduced at a higher rate and could be kept alive long enough to allow more in-depth examination.[15] Until then, cells cultured for laboratory studies only survived for a few days at most, which wasn't long to perform a variety of different tests on the same sample. Lacks's cells were the first to be observed that could be divided multiple times without dying, which is why they became known as "immortal." After Lacks' death Gey had Mary Kubicek, his lab assistant, take further HeLa samples while Henrietta's body was at Johns Hopkins' autopsy facility.[16] The roller-tube technique was the method used to culture the cells obtained from the samples that Kubicek collected.[17] Gey was able to start a cell line from Lacks's sample by isolating one specific cell and repeatedly dividing it, meaning that the same cell could then be used for conducting many experiments. They became known as HeLa cells, because Gey's standard method for labeling samples was to use the first two letters of the patient's first and last names.[2]

The ability to rapidly reproduce HeLa cells in a laboratory setting has led to many important breakthroughs in biomedical research. For example, by 1954, Jonas Salk was using HeLa cells in his research to develop the polio vaccine.[11] To test his new vaccine, the cells were mass-produced in the first-ever cell production factory.[18] Additionally, Chester M. Southam, a leading virologist, injected HeLa cells into cancer patients, prison inmates, and healthy individuals in order to observe if cancer could be transmitted as well as to examine if one could become immune to cancer by developing an acquired immune response.[19]

After they were put into mass production, HeLa cells were in high demand and they were mailed to scientists around the globe for "research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits".[11] HeLa cells were the first human cells successfully cloned in 1955,[20] and have since been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products.[2] Since the 1950s, scientists have grown 20 tons of her cells,[21] and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.[2]

In the early 1970s, a large portion of HeLa cells became contaminated by other cell cultures. As a result, members of Lacks's family received numerous solicitations for blood samples from researchers hoping to learn about the family's genetics in order to replace the contaminated cells.[22] Alarmed and confused, several family members began questioning why they were receiving so many telephone calls requesting blood samples. In this way, the family learned for the first time that samples of cells from Lacks's tumor had been saved for research. The family had never discussed Henrietta's illness and death among themselves in the intervening years but with the increased curiosity about their mother and her genetics they now began to ask questions.[2]

Ethical issues raised

Neither Henrietta Lacks nor her family gave her physicians permission to harvest her cells. At that time, permission was neither required nor customarily sought.[23] The cells were later commercialized. In the 1980s, family medical records were published without family consent. A similar issue was brought up in the Supreme Court of California case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California in 1990. The court ruled that a person's discarded tissue and cells are not their property and can be commercialized.[24]

In March 2013, German researchers published the DNA code, or genome, of a strain of HeLa cells without permission from the Lacks family.[25] In August 2013, an agreement was announced between the family and the National Institutes of Health that gave the family some control over access to the cells' DNA code and a promise of acknowledgement in scientific papers. In addition, two family members will join a six-member committee which will regulate access to the code.[25]


A historical marker memorializing Henrietta Lacks in Clover, Virginia

In 1996, the Morehouse School of Medicine held the first of its HeLa Women's Health Conferences, honoring Henrietta Lacks, the cell line named for her, and "in recognition of the valuable contribution made by African Americans to medical research and clinical practice"[26][27] with Dr. Roland Pattillo continuing to spearhead the annual events.[14][27] Lacks's contributions continue to be celebrated at yearly events in Turner Station.[28][29] At one such event in 1997, then-U.S. Congressman from Maryland, Robert Ehrlich, presented a congressional resolution recognizing Lacks and her contributions to medical science and research.[30]

In 2010, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research established the annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series.[31] This annual event[32] honors Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells' global impact on medicine and research.

In 2011, Morgan State University in Baltimore City, Maryland granted Lacks a posthumous honorary degree of public service.[33] Also in 2011, the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington named their new high school focused on medical careers the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School, becoming the first organization to publicly memorialize her by naming a school in her honor.[34][35]

In 2014, Lacks was inducted into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.[36]

In popular culture

The HeLa cell line was brought to popular attention in two articles written in March 1976 by Michael Rogers, one in the Detroit Free Press[37] and one in Rolling Stone.[38]

In 1998, a BBC documentary directed by Adam Curtis about Lacks and HeLa won the Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival.[39][40]

Rebecca Skloot documented extensive histories of both the HeLa cell line and the Lacks family in two articles published in 2000[12] and 2001[41] and in her 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

HBO announced in 2010 that Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball were developing a film project based on Skloot's book.[14] In 2016, HBO announced production on the film will begin in the summer[42] with Winfrey in a leading role portraying Lacks's daughter, Deborah Lacks.[43]

NBC's Law & Order aired a fictionalized version of Lacks's story in an 2010 episode entitled "Immortal," which Slate referred to as "shockingly close to the true story."[44]

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine released Enhanced Methods of Questioning in 2011 which contained a song called "The Cells That Will Not Die" about Henrietta Lacks and the immortal HeLa cell line.[45]

In 2012, the band Yeasayer released "Henrietta", the first single from their third album Fragrant World. Chris Keating, the lead singer, said that the song was inspired by Lacks's legacy.[46]

Members of the Lacks family authored their own stories for the first time in 2013 when Lacks's oldest son and his wife, Lawrence and Bobbette Lacks, wrote a short digital memoir called "Hela Family Stories: Lawrence and Bobbette" with first-hand accounts of their memories of Henrietta Lacks while she was alive and of their own efforts to keep the youngest children out of unsafe living environments following their mother's death.[47]

See also


  1. Skloot, Rebecca (2010), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, New York City: Random House, ISBN 978-1-4000-5217-2
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 Batts, Denise Watson (2010-05-10). "Cancer cells killed Henrietta Lacks – then made her immortal". The Virginian-Pilot. pp. 1, 12–14. Retrieved 2012-08-19. Note: Some sources report her birthday as August 2, 1920, vs. August 1, 1920.
  3. Grady, Denise (2010-02-01). "A Lasting Gift to Medicine That Wasn't Really a Gift". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  4. Skloot 2010, p. 18.
  5. 1 2 3 Skloot, Rebecca (February 2010). "Excerpt From The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". oprah.com. Retrieved August 9, 2013.
  6. "Turner's Station African American Survey District, Dundalk, Baltimore County 1900–1950" (PDF). Baltimore County. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  7. "Baltimore county architectural survey African American Thematic Study" (PDF). Baltimore County Office of Planning and The Landmarks Preservation Commission. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  8. Skloot 2010, p. 27.
  9. Skloot 2010, pp. 172.
  10. Skloot 2010, p. 33.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Smith, Van (2002-04-17). "Wonder Woman: The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science". Baltimore City Paper. Archived from the original on August 14, 2004. Retrieved 2016-09-19.
  12. 1 2 Skloot, Rebecca (April 2000). "Henrietta's Dance". Johns Hopkins Magazine. Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved 2016-10-12.
  13. Skloot, Rebecca (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown/Archetype. p. 231. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  14. 1 2 3 4 Batts, Denise Watson (2010-05-30). "After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone". The Virginian-Pilot. pp. HR1,7. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  15. Claiborne, Ron; Wright IV, Sydney (2010-01-31). "How One Woman's Cells Changed Medicine". ABC World News. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  16. Gold, Michael (1986). A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy-And the Medical Scandal It Caused. SUNY Press. p. 20.
  17. Lucey, Brendan P.; Nelson-Rees, Walter A.; Hutchins, Grover M. (2009-09-01). "Henrietta Lacks, HeLa Cells, and Cell Culture Contamination". Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine. 133 (9): 1463–1467. doi:10.1043/1543-2165-133.9.1463. ISSN 0003-9985.
  18. Skloot 2010, p. 96.
  19. Skloot, Rebecca (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks. p. 128.
  20. ^ Puck TT, Marcus PI. A Rapid Method for Viable Cell Titration and Clone Production With Hela Cells In Tissue Culture: The Use of X-Irradiated Cells to Supply Conditioning Factors. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1955 Jul 15;41(7):432-7. URL: PNASJSTOR
  21. Margonelli, Lisa (February 5, 2010). "Eternal Life". New York Times. New York. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  22. Skloot 2010.
  23. Washington, Harriet (October 1994), "Henrietta Lacks: An Unsung Hero", Emerge Magazine
  24. Skloot 2010, pp. 203–206.
  25. 1 2 Ritter, Malcolm (August 7, 2013). "Feds, family reach deal on use of DNA information". Seattle Times. Retrieved August 7, 2013.
  26. Roland A. Pattillo, MD; Roland Matthews, MA (Spring 2006). "Tenth Annual HeLa Women's Health Conference:An Overview and Historical Perspective" (PDF). Journal of Ethnicity and Disease. International Society on Hypertension in Blacks. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  27. 1 2 "2011 First Year Book Program - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". University of Maryland. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  28. Wenger, Yvonne (August 4, 2012). "Henrietta Lacks honored in 15th annual Turners Station celebration". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  29. Rodman, Nicole (August 4, 2016). "Honoring the legacy of Henrietta Lacks". PressReader.Com. The Dundalk Eagle. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  30. "In Memory Of Henrietta Lacks -- Hon. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. (Extension of Remarks - June 4, 1997)", Congressional Record 105th Congress (1997–1998), THOMAS, The Library of Congress, Jun 4, 1997, retrieved May 3, 2016
  31. "Family Recognition, Community Awards, And Author Highlight Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture 2010". The Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. October 2, 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2016.
  32. "Past Lectures". The Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. Retrieved June 17, 2016.
  33. "Must-Read Books— Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". Morgan State University. 2011-05-23. Retrieved 2015-05-08.
  34. Buck, Howard (2011-09-14). "Bioscience school gets official name". The Columbian. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  35. "New high school name to honor Henrietta Lacks". KATU. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  36. Squires, Emily Oland. "Maryland Women's Hall of Fame Online". The Maryland State Archives. Retrieved November 6, 2014.
  37. Rogers, Michael (March 21, 1976). "The HeLa Strain". Detroit Free Press.
  38. Rogers, Michael (March 25, 1976). "The Double-Edged Helix". Rolling Stone.
  39. "The Way of All Flesh". Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  40. Video on YouTube The Way of All Flesh by Adam Curtis
  41. Cells That Save Lives are a Mother's Legacy, New York Times, November 17, 2001.
  42. Stanhope, Kate (May 2, 2016). "Oprah Winfrey to Star in HBO Films' 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 3, 2016.
  43. Blas, Lorena (May 2, 2016), "Oprah Winfrey to star in HBO's 'Henrietta Lacks' movie", USA Today
  44. Thomas, June (2010-05-19). "Ripped From Which Headline? "Immortal"". Slate. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  45. Kamen, Jess (Jun 23, 2014). "Holiday In Baltimore". Baltimore City Paper.
  46. "Yeasayer reveal new track 'Henrietta' – listen". NME. 2012-05-16.
  47. Welcome to HeLa Family Stories, 2013, retrieved May 3, 2016

Further reading

External links

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