Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), mother of five, was a Black woman from the US whose cells, called HeLa cells, are used worldwide in medical research. They have helped to give us vaccines, chemotherapy, in vitro fertilization, and a far better understanding of cancer, disease, and, most of all, cells, the building blocks that every living creature is made out of.
In 1951, after giving birth to her fifth child, she noticed a “knot” in her womb. Her husband took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital, the nearest hospital that would take Black patients. Whites knew it as a top research hospital. Blacks knew it for doing medical experiments on unwilling Black subjects. As her daughter-in-law would later say of growing up in East Baltimore:
“When it got dark and we were young, we had to be on the steps or Hopkins might get us.”
The knot in Lacks’s womb was cancer. And it was spreading quickly. The pain was too much even for the morphine. In all that pain, the doctor leaned over and told her on her death bed, “Your cells will make you immortal”, saving countless lives. She smiled and said she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.
HeLa cells: That doctor, Dr George Gey, had studied the cancer cells that were killing her. They were unlike any human cells ever seen before: they grew easily outside of the body and lived forever, not just for a few days. That made HeLa cells (named after her) way easier to study and to use in tests for new medicines. The polio vaccine was just its first success.
Her family knew none of this till 1973, over 20 years later. While her cells gave rise to a biotech industry worth billions, her own family could not always afford a doctor.
Her son Zakariyya in 2000:
“The doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people. But it didn’t do no good for her, and it don’t do no good for us. If me and my sister need something, we can’t even go see a doctor cause we can’t afford it. Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever selling them cells – they get rich off our mother and we got nothing.”
Taking Johns Hopkins to court is of little use: they broke no laws of the time and, since they gave away her cells for free for the good of science, they made no money from them. That was done later by other companies.
In 2013, though, her family did get some control over her genome, her genetic code. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US government agency that oversees medical research, will not give out her genome to researchers without the family’s knowledge and permission. There is no money in that, but for the first time they are no longer being kept in the dark.
– Abagond, 2017.
Source: mainly “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (2010) by Rebecca Skloot; BBC (2013).
- Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
- Dr J. Marion Sims
- Baltimore power structure
- Ben Carson – used to work at Johns Hopkins