Henrietta Lacks, born Loretta Pleasant in August 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, was nicknamed ‘Hennie’ as a young girl. Her mother passed away in childbirth to her tenth child when Henrietta was four, sending her to live with her maternal grandfather, Thomas Lacks, in a former slave quarters for plantation workers owned by Henrietta's great-grandfather and great-uncle. Henrietta worked as a tobacco farmer from an early age, and had her first child, when she was just fourteen. Four years later, her daughter Elsie was born - their father, David ‘Day’ Lacks, lived with Henrietta when she moved in with her grandfather.
Elsie had some developmental disabilities which at the time were not addressed as they would be today - she was described as ‘different’ and ‘deaf and dumb’ by her family. At the age of ten, Elsie was diagnosed with ‘idiocy’, and sent to the Hospital for the Negro Insane - an asylum where her medical records show that she suffered abuse, experimentation and mistreatment for her supposed condition. She later passed away in the hospital, only four years after her mother’s death, at the age of fifteen. It has been reported that in the same year, the facility was 800 patients over capacity, and patients were grouped into tight fitting rooms, sharing beds, and using drains on the floor as toilets. Family members of the Lacks have even discovered that experiments such as pneumoencephalography were performed - a procedure that allows for X-rays of the brain to be taken by draining it of the natural fluid that surrounds and protects it. The horrific side-effects of pneumoencephalography are numerous and can include seizures, nausea, headaches, and permanent brain damage. As a contemporary audience, this is inhumane and incomprehensible. Yet, then this so-called ‘scientific racism’ allowed for the frankly sadistic treatments of black men and women, as well as anyone in the neurodivergent or disabled community, in the name of research.
David and Henrietta were married in 1941, and convinced to move to Turner Station, near Maryland, by their cousin Fred Garrett. Garrett was called to fight in The Second World War, and the money he left to the couple allowed David - not Henrietta - to purchase a house at 713 New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turner Station. (NB: This area was one of the oldest and largest black-American communities in Baltimore at the time)
Living in Maryland, Henrietta and David had three more children: David "Sonny" Lacks Jr. in 1947, Deborah Lacks in 1949, and Joseph Lacks in 1950, born only four and a half months before she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Now 31 years old, Henrietta had to revisit Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital that treated black women at that time - as, according to Rebbecca Skloots’ biography, she felt a ‘knot’ in her womb before having Joseph, had had a severe haemorrhage after the birth. Whilst there, her doctor took a biopsy of a mass on her cervix, and discovered the cancer - which was ‘not like an ordinary cancer’. She was treated as an inpatient and discharged later. Whilst being treated, two samples of cells were taken from her cervix without her permission or her knowledge and kept by the cancer unit at the hospital. Some of these were given to a laboratory scientist, George Otto Gey, a physician and cancer researcher, still without Henrietta knowing.
Henrietta then attended a routine treatment session on August 8th, and was experiencing severe abdominal pain so asked to be admitted to the hospital again. Because the cancer was so aggressive, she received blood transfusions, but they weren’t enough. Henrietta died in the hospital on October 4th, 1951. During her autopsy, it was found the cancer had spread (metastasized) throughout her entire body.
In the laboratory, Gey discovered that Henrietta’s cells were able to survive and reproduce out of the body, in petri dishes - which was the first discovery of this type of cell at the time. As no other cells had been discovered to do this, scientific research involving this simply did not exist - Henrietta’s cells allowed it to. Gey was able to start an immortalised cell line, where cells are kept and cultured in vitro indefinitely, by isolating a single cell and repeatedly dividing it. Cancer cells were important to Gey’s research as they possess the critical ability to overcome the ‘in built controls’ that prevent cells from growing indefinitely. They gained the name HeLa cells, named after Henrietta. When I read it aloud, it sounds to me almost like ‘healer’ - reminiscent of all the people Henrietta has helped to save and bring into the world through the miracle of her cells.
Gey then began to share the cells with other scientists, and they became vital in biological and medical research. By 1954, only three years later, they were used to develop the polio vaccine by growing the virus en masse, and were mass-produced in a cell production factory, the first of its kind - saving millions of lives. A leading virologist injected the cells into various patients to test the communicability of cancer. By then, the ever more infamous HeLa cells were in high demand, and were sent to scientists worldwide for various research ventures. Alternatively, HeLa cells are also used in industry, in testing billions of dollars’ worth of substances like glue, tape, and makeup products to discern any side-effects to humans. The cells underpin much of modern medicine, with one of their most recent uses being in research for a coronavirus vaccine.
Almost 11,000 patents for products today have used HeLa cells.
All of this, however, had been conducted without the knowledge of Henrietta Lacks’ family. At the time, no permission was required or sought by the doctors who took the cells because cells were not seen as the person’s property. The law only changed in the 1990’s. The origins of the cells were only discovered by accident during an informal conversation at a dinner party in the 1970’s. Before this, many had received phone calls asking for blood samples, after a culture of HeLa cells became contaminated and scientists wanted to use their genetics to be able to differentiate between the HeLa cells and the others. Curious, the family began to ask questions about how exactly these cells were obtained and why they were never told.
Her story directly illustrates structural racial inequalities that existed, and have persisted until today, within the US healthcare and scientific research. As a black woman during this period, Henrietta’s options for admission into hospital’s were limited. For decades, doctors and scientists never asked her family for consent, and instead revealed her name, medical records, and even her genome sequence to the media.
(NB: The genome was removed after backlash, then reinstated after her family made an agreement with the NIH)
Her family has not received financial compensation from the biotech companies that profited from the breakthrough. Her family did however, approach lawyers to seek financial compensation and wanted to commemorate her legacy. The family themselves believe racism was involved, with her son saying, ‘if she was a white female, I think they (the scientists) would have acknowledged it and they would know who she is right now’.
(NB: Two of her family members are now part of a six-person panel that regulates all research proposals using the cell line)
Considering the events of 2020, scientists are having to look back on past injustices through a modern lens. Some are even calling for a reduction in the use of, or even banning, of HeLa cells, believing their use as unethical. But the Lacks family doesn’t want this - instead, they want to celebrate Henrietta’s life and input to medicine.
Her cells have advanced cancer research and the family is commended repeatedly by parents who have children through IVF treatment. Her grandson says that although ‘they were taken in a bad way...they are doing good for the world’ - and most importantly, they help all people regardless of their ethnicity or socio-economic background to survive and thrive.
Henrietta’s cells were taken in a different time - of consent, science and racial views - and we will never be able to justify what happened to her. The past cannot be erased, but we as a collective must acknowledge the wrongs of previous generations of scientists and the public alike, and also those wrongs that are still around to be dealt with today, and ensure that they do not happen again.
Rest in power Henrietta Lacks - the world owes you a debt they can never repay.
Hi! My name is Milly Gibson, and i’m a fifteen-year old currently in year 11 and studying for my GCSE’s. I enjoy academics, sport and reading, and am passionate about eradicating gender and social inequalities in society. I love writing, both creatively and for articles, and currently live between London and Lewes, East Sussex. I like fashion, interiors, film and food, and I am hoping to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at university. I hope my writing is educational, entertaining and thought-provoking for you all.