Women's History Wednesday: Henrietta Lacks

Source: www.lacksfamily.net
This poor lady has saved millions of lives and never lived to know about it. Nor did she receive any recognition for it. As a matter of fact, if you aren't in the science field, you probably never even heard of her. More than likely, she has saved your life and you don't even know it! Her name was 
Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta, or Hennie, to her friends, was born August 1, 1920 in Baltimore, Maryland to Eliza and John Randall Pleasant. After her mother died in childbirth, her father took her to Clover, Virginia, for her Grandfather to raise her. She grew up poor in a small log cabin that used to be slave quarters. She shared a room with her cousin, David Lacks. They grew up together and eventually married. Not only did she have a sad childhood, but her adult life ended up being even more reprehensible. 

In the beginning of 1951, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for the "knot" she felt inside of her. At that time, Johns Hopkins was the only hospital near them that would treat black patients. The "knot" she felt ended up being adenocarcinoma on her cervix. (Which she more than likely ended up getting from her husband, who cheated on her frequently and had given her STDs) She was treated with radiation. At that time, radiation for cervical cancer consisted of inserting radium tubes that they actually sewed in place for several days. After several days they would remove them and take biopsies. They would take cervical samples from the cancerous and non cancerous sites.  Here is the important part of her story: They took these cells Without her permission. By October, she passed away at the age of 31. Leaving her babies at home, motherless. Her family was so poor they had no money for a gravestone.  She was buried in a family cemetery in Clover.

So what was so significant about Henrietta? Those cells they took from her without her permission. Dr. George Otto Gey studied them. These cells are commonly known to the medical/scientific community as HeLa cells. Her cells, HeLa cells are to date, the only cells that keep reproducing. They are what Dr. Gey referred to as "immortal." They didn't die after several cell divisions. This was huge! They are still alive today and keep multiplying! They have been  used in so much scientific/biologic research. This is just a little snippet of what her cells have done:
  • Vaccine for the Polio Virus
  • First human cells ever successfully cloned
  • HIV research and AIDS treatments
  • Gene Mapping
  • HPV (Human Papilloma Virus, which can cause cervical cancer)
  • Cosmetics
  • Anti-tumor medications
  •  Cancer research
That's not all, there are so many uses for the HeLa cells. It is estimated to be about 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells, according to Wikipedia.

That's cool, but why is this such a big deal?
Because she never gave consent to this. Her cells were taken from her without her permission.  Ethically, this is totally wrong.  But because this was the 50's, and she was a poor, uneducated black woman, they felt as though her cells were kinda like property of Johns Hopkins to experiment with. Here is the kicker: these cells have made so many advances in medicine and cures, made millions upon millions of dollars, but her family never saw a penny. That's right, she has helped millions without ever knowing, but her impoverished family never received any money.

Henrietta's story touched my heartstrings. I read this book by Rebecca Skloot back when I was in lab school.  (Where I got 90% of all my information!) I was completely intrigued. Not only by the scientific parts, but because these cells were once a beautiful woman.  She was a wife, a mom, and a friend. Loved by so many. It is a tragic true story and shows how far we have come in medical and scientific ethics. 

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