The Poor Black Woman Who Unknowingly Changed Science Forever

“”I got a knot on my womb. [. . .] I got a knot inside me.” —Henrietta Lacks, describing her pains to her doctor

In A Nutshell

Henrietta Lacks had a short, hard life. She lost her mother when she was four, and her father abandoned her and her nine siblings soon afterward. When she died at the age of 31, her obituary never appeared in a newspaper and she was buried in an unmarked grave. And yet cervical cancer cells, taken from her without her knowledge or consent, were very, very special. Lacks’s cells were “immortal,” meaning, said the researcher who first cultured them, they were “a continuously dividing line of cells all descended from one original sample, cells that would constantly replenish themselves and never die.” They’ve been used in countless research studies, helped develop the polio vaccine, and more.

Note: The above photo is a scanning electron micrograph of one of Henrietta’s cells.

The Whole Bushel

Loretta Pleasant was born in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920, in a tiny shack shared by her parents and eight older siblings. She later changed her name to Henrietta. In 1924, her mother Eliza died giving birth to yet another child and Johnny Pleasant decided he didn’t have the patience to raise his children. He took his brood to Clover, Virginia and distributed the kids among family who still worked the same tobacco fields their enslaved ancestors had worked.

Henrietta moved in with her maternal grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who lived in a four-room cabin. Mr. Lacks was already raising a grandchild, David “Day” Lacks, abandoned by Eliza’s sister after Day’s birth nine years before. From then on, Henrietta and Day shared a bedroom.

Both Day and Henrietta walked to the segregated school for African-Americans 3 kilometers (2 mi) away, but Day was pulled from school in fourth grade to work the tobacco fields. Henrietta made it to sixth grade before she, too, was pulled. Just a few months after Henrietta’s 14th birthday, she and Day had their first child, Lawrence. Lucile Elsie followed four years later and suffered from epilepsy and developmental disabilities. In April 1941, Henrietta and Day were married in their preacher’s house.

After they moved to Turner Station, a suburb of Baltimore, three more kids came along. Shortly before her final pregnancy, Henrietta began having vaginal pain during sex. She shrugged it off when she became pregnant, but the pain only intensified. Four months after Joe was born, Henrietta found a “knot” the size of the tip of her pinkie finger in her cervix. Her husband took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital because it was the only Baltimore hospital that served African-Americans in 1951.

In January, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer; on February 6 she went back to Johns Hopkins for her first radiation treatment. But before packing her cervix with a white radioactive metal called radium and sewing her cervix closed, the surgeon took two samples from her—one from healthy tissue, the other from cancerous. Henrietta wasn’t told the samples would be taken, nor did she give her permission for them to be used. Back in 1951, that wasn’t required by law.

Richard TeLinde, head of gynecology at Johns Hopkins was, at the time, in the middle of a cancer study. He ordered his doctors to routinely remove healthy and cancerous cells during gynecological procedures. He then turned them over to George Gey, head of tissue research at Johns Hopkins, hoping Gey could grow the cells in a culture so they could be studied. But the cells always died. Always.

When Henrietta’s cells were brought to Gey’s lab, they were dropped in test tubes with chicken blood and culture medium and were labeled “HeLa” (the first two letters of “Henrietta” and “Lacks”). They were then loaded into an incubator. And the cancer cells grew. And grew. The cells doubled their numbers every 24 hours and were so aggressive that they refused to die. Henrietta’s cancer had mutated her cells into the first “immortal” human cells ever cultured. Gey began telling his colleagues about HeLa and requests for samples began pouring in.

By then Henrietta’s aggressive cancer had ravaged her body, and she died on October 4, 1951. Her autopsy revealed that her cancer had spread to nearly every one of her organs. No one at Johns Hopkins thought to tell Henrietta how important her cells were. Her husband and children wouldn’t find out about HeLa until 1973 when researchers appeared at their door, wanting blood samples.

The Lacks family was astonished to discover a multibillion-dollar industry had sprung up to sell Henrietta’s cells. Jonas Falk used HeLa to develop the polio vaccine. Henrietta’s became the first human cells cloned in 1955. HeLa allowed scientists to finally identify the number of human chromosomes as 46 instead of 48. HeLa could be exposed to radiation, infections, and toxins at doses impossible with living human subjects. HeLa could be bombarded with drugs in order to find something that would kill cancer. Over 10,000 patents were registered using HeLa and, just since 2001, five Nobel Prizes were awarded for research using HeLa. Everybody wanted it, so the Tuskegee Institute mass-produced it, shipping 20,000 test tubes of HeLa every week. One scientist estimated that if all the HeLa cells used in the last 60 years were piled up on a scale, it would weigh 50 million metric tons, about the same weight of over 100 Empire State Buildings.

And yet Henrietta’s contribution went largely unnoticed. Worse, the Lacks family had no say in how HeLa was used. And with all the lives saved by Henrietta’s cells, the Lacks family still lived in abject poverty, unable to even purchase health care.

All that began to change when the BBC filmed a documentary on Henrietta and HeLa in 1998. The Lacks family were honored by the Smithsonian and the National Foundation for Cancer Research. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot wrote Henrietta’s biography, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Oprah Winfrey purchased the rights to make an HBO movie of it. Skloot set up a foundation using some of the proceeds from her book to help the Lacks family financially, provide health care for them, and give them some say in how HeLa is utilized. And in 2010, a headstone was finally donated and planted near Henrietta’s unmarked grave.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: National Institutes of Health
Oprah.com: Excerpt from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Part 1, Part 2
Cell Biology: Henrietta Lacks and Her “Immortal” Cells
Smithsonian: Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells
Biography: Henrietta Lacks