A glimpse at Henrietta Lacks—Immortal, Heroine of Modern Medicine, Medical Miracle, and Wonder Woman

Henrietta lacks has been called many things:  Immortal, Heroine of Modern Medicine, Medical Miracle, and Wonder Woman. To her family she was and is: daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother. Henrietta was a phenomenal woman during her life time and in her passing we learn that her medical contributions exhibit what a phenomenal woman she really was. She continues to enhance many lives that are unaware of her past existence. After all, she has a rich and important history and a great legacy that she left for her family to carry on.- (Adapted from the Lacks Family website)

A glimpse at Henrietta Lacks—Immortal, Heroine of Modern Medicine, Medical Miracle, and Wonder Woman

Henrietta Lacks – Photo courtesy of tuskegee.edu

There are many black individuals in history who are today considered legendary and their contributions throughout their lives and their legacy and stories are told generations to come by those who are presently alive and those who will know their name. One such person is the phenomenal woman known as Loretta Pleasant and the family called Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was known for possessing the immortalized “cell line”, also known as the HeLa cell, which was a very important tool for research in biochemistry, biotechnology and cell biology of multicellular organisms.

Early Life

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1st, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia to Johnny and Eliza Pleasant. Her mother died when she was four years old giving birth to her 10th child and her father moved the family to Clover, Virginia due to the inability to care for all the children alone. Her siblings were then distributed amongst their relatives. Henrietta ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, in a log cabin, which served as a slave quarters on the plantation and owned by Henrietta’s white great-grandfather and great-uncle. She shared a room with her cousin and unbeknown future husband, David Lacks. At fourteen years old in the year 1935, she gave birth to her first son who she called Lawrence Lacks. Four years later (1939) she had a daughter Elsie Lacks.

Elsie unfortunately had developmental disabilities. Henrietta and David were married in 1941 in Halifax County, Virginia and then they moved to Maryland. Not long after, they purchased their first house in Dundalk, Maryland, one of the largest African-American communities at that time. The comforts of family life afforded for the Lacks three more children David Lacks Jr. (in 1947), Deborah Lacks Pullum (in 1949) and Joseph Lacks (in 1950) who changed his name to Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman.


After remarking that she felt a “knot in her womb” Henrietta went to the John Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital at the time that treated blacks in her area, after she experienced a hemorrhage subsequent to giving birth. Her story came to a crashing halt when four and a half months after the birth of Joseph she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which Howard Jones misdiagnosed as a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix at first, and she was placed in the Hospital for the Negro Insane, later dubbed the Crownsville Hospital Center. Her treatments went underway and two samples were taken from Henrietta’s cervix without her knowledge – one sample of a healthy tissue and the other was cancerous, which were given to George Gey. Her cells eventually became known as HeLa cells thus becoming the most commonly used cells in biomedical research.

George Otto Gey was the cell biologist who propagated the HeLa cell line. He started the Tissue Culture Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. Using a sample from the cervix of Henrietta Lacks provided by Howard W. Jones, he propagated her cells into an immortalized human cell line.

HeLa Cell Line

This cell line can also be used in cloning and be propagated indefinitely due to its durability and prolific properties as it is a eukaryotic cell derived from the eukaryotic organism of immortalization. In research immortality means that these cells would not die after an unlimited number of cell divisions in a laboratory cell culture plate in a suitable environment which promotes optimal survival conditions.

The HeLa cells were derived from the cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta without her permission for research by George Gey.

Howard Wilbur Jones, an American gynecological surgeon, who was the initial treating physician of Henrietta Lacks when she presented to Johns Hopkins with cancer in 1951. Jones took a biopsy of Lacks’ tumor and, without her permission, sent samples to his laboratory colleagues. The cells, later known as HeLa cells, grew at an astonishing rate in the lab and were shipped and sold to researchers for various purposes.

The cell was isolated, multiplied and developed and it was custom that the culture was labeled by the first two letters of the patient’s first and last name – thus HeLa. Today it is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. Through HeLa, the polio virus was developed and accompanying this was the vaccine by Jonas Salk. Also, cloning cells were successful with the HeLa cells by Theodore Puck and Phillip I Marcus in 1955 and became the benchmark for research into cancer and AIDS, gene mapping, replications, disease research, and effects of toxic substances and radiation on humans as well as human sensitivity to cosmetics, glue, and other products. The cells have also been used to test effects of the parvo virus, oropouche virus, the papillomavirus E2 and apoptosis, canine distemper virus, sex steroid hormones, estrogen-like compounds, flavonoids, antioxidants, phytochemical compounds, the development of theranostics, in vitro cancer research and photodynamic therapy.

To date, there have been over 20 tons and 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells and with that comes the speculation that the cell line is not fully human, but technically a new species even though the cells carry a mix of Henrietta’s and HPV DNA to this day.

In February 2010, Johns Hopkins released the following statement:

“Johns Hopkins Medicine sincerely acknowledges the contribution to advances in biomedical research made possible by Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. It’s important to note that at the time the cells were taken from Mrs. Lacks’ tissue, the practice of obtaining informed consent from cell or tissue donors was essentially unknown among academic medical centers. Sixty years ago, there was no established practice of seeking permission to take tissue for scientific research purposes. The laboratory that received Mrs. Lacks’s cells had arranged many years earlier to obtain such cells from any patient diagnosed with cervical cancer as a way to learn more about a serious disease that took the lives of so many. Johns Hopkins never patented HeLa cells, nor did it sell them commercially or benefit in a direct financial way. Today, Johns Hopkins and other research-based medical centers consistently obtain consent from those asked to donate tissue or cells for scientific research.”

Henrietta’s Last Years

She went back to the hospital for routine treatments and was admitted due to experiencing severe abdominal pain in the hospital from August to October, when she succumbed to the illness. Her autopsy revealed that the cancer spread through her entire body. She was buried in Lackstown, Virginia in an unmarked grave believed to be a few feet from her mother’s grave. In 2010 Roland Pattillo of Morehouse School of Medicine, who was a family friend and worked with Gey, donated headstones to the Lacks family.

Her Legacy

Her cell line was made popular by articles written by Michael Rogers which was published in the Rolling Stone and the Detroit Free Press. Other persons carry on her legacy like Adam Curtis (a documentary – The Way of All Flesh), Rebecca Skloot (a book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and HBO is now releasing an upcoming movie of the life of Henrietta based on Skloot’s book with Oprah Winfrey playing the role of Deborah Lacks.

A glimpse at Henrietta Lacks—Immortal, Heroine of Modern Medicine, Medical Miracle, and Wonder Woman

Photo courtesy of ebonymagazine.com

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.

The Lacks family also authored memoirs of their mother in 2013. Lawrence Lacks and his wife accounts Henrietta’s life while she walked the Earth, after her death and the struggles faced up to the moments of her story making history.

Her legacy lives on as the Morehouse School of Medicine hosted its first HeLa Women’s Health Conferences in honor of Henrietta Lacks and the invaluable contribution made by a meticulous African-American to medical research. In 1997 Lacks was recognized by the US congressman Robert Ehrlich for her contribution to medical science and in 2010 the John Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research constructed the annually held Henrietta Lacks Memorial lecture series. Lacks received her posthumous honorary doctorate degree from Morgan State University in 2011 and a high school named after her in Evergreen School District in Vancouver Washington – the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School. Rebecca Skloot also established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation in 2010. She was inducted into the Maryland Women Hall of Fame in 2014.

By Alexandra Daley



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