Black History Month: Day 11 – The Immortal Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer who was diagnosed with cervical cancer and unknowingly became the progenitor of the HeLa cell line, one of the most important cell lines in medical research ever discovered. Her immortal cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.

Henrietta's immortal DNA

Photo credit: Michael Gillette

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. At some point Loretta changed her name to Henrietta. After her mother died in 1924, Henrietta was sent to live with her grandfather in a log cabin that had been the slave quarters of a white ancestor’s plantation. Henrietta Lacks shared a room with her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks, who would later become her husband. The couple eventually movde to Maryland where her husband worked at a steel factory. There, they raised their five children: Lawrence, Elsie, David Jr., Deborah, and Joseph. 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.

Henrietta Lacks in the 1940s.

Henrietta Lacks in the 1940s. Credit: Lacks Family, via The Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins because she felt a “knot” in her womb and blood spotting when it wasn’t her time of the month. Johns Hopkins was the only hospital in the area that would treat black patients. At the time, cancer wasn’t something that was normally checked for, so the doctors initially checked her for syphilis. When this came back negative, the doctors did a biopsy. This later came back as an “Epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage I,” which meant cancer.

Lacks was treated with painful radium tube inserts and discharged a few days later with instructions to return for X-rays and follow-up treatments. During the following months she continued to go to Johns Hopkins for treatments that would leave her infertile and in pain. Henrietta would mention that the treatments would leave her “burning inside,” and soon she was unable to walk even short distances due to the pain. Despite the treatments and the insistence by doctors, Henrietta felt her cancer getting worse. After repeated complaints, doctors found tumors all throughout her abdomen and they were at that point inoperable. She was admitted into the hospital on August 8, 1951 due to her severe abdominal pain, where she remained until her death on October 4, 1951. A partial autopsy showed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body. Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery, and her grave would not receive a headstone until one was donated by the Morehouse School of Medicine in 2010.

Dividing HeLa cells in culture.

Dividing HeLa cells in culture. The cells can be seen metaphase and telophase, different stages of cell division. Image courtesy of Doc. RNDr. Josef Reischig, CSc.

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. George Otto Gey, a physician and cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins, had been collecting and researching cancer cells.  Gey noticed that Henrietta’s cells, unlike the cells he normally collected did not die.  In fact, they continued to proliferate with great intensity, doubling and dividing in a way he had never seen.  This trait allowed the cells to be grown and shared in a way that allowed other labs to use them for experiments.  Since 1951, scientists have cloned the cells, and over ten thousand patents involving HeLa cells have been registered.  However, the Lacks family did not learn about their mother’s cells and it’s contributions until the 1970s.  Neither Henrietta Lacks nor her family received compensation or recognition until Rebecca Skloot, an author who took special interest in Henrietta’s story, wrote her engaging novel The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

HeLa cells timeline.

HeLa cells timeline. Infographic: Walbaum

Though the HeLa cells allowed for many lifesaving medical procedures, the use of black people as speicmens in experiments without their consent has been a constant in medicine. In the early 1800s, an African woman named Sara Baartman was known as the “Hottentot Venus,” and was placed on display during her life under the pretense of “scientific research.” After she died, researchers kept her sexual organs and her brain and put them on display in the Musee de I’Homme in Paris.  In America, during the mid 1800s, gynecological experiments were carried out on enslaved black women without anesthesia (it was widely believed based on no data that black people had a much higher tolerance for pain).  Furthermore, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a study in 1932 in Tuskegee, Alabama where they studied the effects of untreated syphilis on 600 African American sharecroppers. “The Tuskegee Experiment” lasted 40 years, and it kept the subjects of the experiment untreated (despite the wide availability of penicillin as a treatment), even though many died and unwittingly infected their wives and children.

Today, the HeLa cells still live on and continue to benefit modern science. Meanwhile, Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown, and her family can barely afford health insurance.  Regardless the Lacks Family has made efforts to share Henrietta’s story and legacy. With the help of Rebecca Skloot, the author who first helped to tell Henrietta’s story, they created the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.  The foundation provides financial assistance to needy individuals who have contributed to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, in particular those used in research without their knowledge or consent.  Additionally, Oprah Winfrey is producing an HBO biopic based on Skloot’s book.


Biba, Erin. “Henrietta Everlasting: 1950s Cells Still Alive, Helping Science.” Wired, 2010. Web. 11 February 2017.

Goffe, Leslie. “How the US Government used Black people as guinea pigs.” New African, 2012. Web. 11 February 2017.

Gordon, Taylor. “5 Unethical Medical Experiments That Used Black People As Guinea Pigs.” Atlanta Black Star, 2014. Web. 11 February 2017.

“Henrietta Lacks.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 11 February 2017.

“Henrietta Lacks Biography.”, n.d. Web. 11 February 2017.

“About The Henrietta Lacks Foundation.” The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, 2010. Web. 11 February 2017.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. 2010. New York : Crown Publishers, 2010. Print.

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