Biography of Henrietta Lacks

PHYLLIS LOGIE By PHYLLIS LOGIE, 20th Mar 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Science>Biology>Cells

In 1951 cancer cells were take from an Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman suffering from cervical cancer which was able to change biomedical history.

Hela Cells changed the face of bio-medical research

Henrietta Lacks began making history in 1951 with a remarkable and on-going contribution to biomedical science and sixty years after her death she is still continuing to do so.

Henrietta was born on the 18th August 1920 into a poor African American family who made their living as tobacco farmers in Roanoke Virginia. She was raised from the age of four years by her grandmother, after her mother died giving birth to her tenth child. In 1941 she married her first cousin to the surprise of her whole family, because they grew up in the same house as brother and sister. They eventually had five children the last of which was born five months before she was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the cervix.

The disease began with heavy bleeding from her vagina accompanied by severe abdominal pains. She visited the gynaecologist Dr. Howard Jones at the John Hopkins hospital who diagnosed cervical cancer. Tissue samples were taken from her tumour without her consent (common practice at that time) before treatment began and sent to pathologist Dr. George Gey and his wife Margaret who had been working for over twenty years on developing an immoral cell. When Henriettas cells arrived at first it was treated as any other tissue sample until through observation and experiments. they discovered taht the cell looked and behaved differently, unlike any he had worked with previously.

Cells normally die within a few days after its been taken for the donor, however in this case the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks were able to live indefinitely. It was the ‘miracle cell’ long awaited by the scientific community and proved to be the boost needed by biomedical researchers.

Dr. Gey named the cells ‘HeLa’ which is a combination of the first two letters of her first and last names in an effort he said, to protect her identity. He then went on to make a public announcement on television about his discovery.

The cell later became known as the ‘immortal cell line’ because of it unique characteristic of being able to grow and replicate indefinitely, survive after being frozen for decades, divided into different batches to shared amongst different scientists, and even journeyed into space without being affected.

Three years after she died HeLa cells helped the scientist Jonas Salk in his development of the polio vaccination. To test his newly developed vaccine, he established the first ever mass production cell factory. During the years that followed, over 20 tons of cells have been grown to meet the global scientific demand. It has been used to conduct experiments on cancer cells, AIDS, gene mapping, cloning and to determine the effect of radiation on human cells and other toxic substances. It has also been used to test sensitivity of glue, tape, cosmetics and numerous other scientific experiments

Effective as it is, mystery still surround the origins and uniqueness of HeLa cells, however as one might expect in the absence of facts theories continue to abound. The most prominent of which believe that its uniqueness is due to the altered state of the
enzyme known as Telomerasec.

Over the sixty years of its discovery over 11,000 thousand patents have been registered involving HeLa cells making someone millions of dollars, yet Henrietta’s family have not benefit by one penny. In fact they had no idea of the cells existence, or the wealth that was being generated as a result of their mother’s unique cells. It was not until 1970 when the Lacks family began receiving telephone calls from scientific researchers asking for blood samples trying to trace the family’s genetics that the family gradually began to learn about HeLa cells and the unique place it held in biomedical history.

Tests eventually revealed that none of the family had the traits carried by their mother. After that, recognition came thick and fast, beginning with the Moorhouse School of medicine in Atlanta Georgia who honoured her for her posthumous contribution. After that Robert Ehrlich past a congressional resolution in her honour followed by a commemoration from Turners Station for her contribution to science. At the same time recognition was also given to Dr. George Gey and his wife Margaret Gey for the body of work they undertook which recognised the cell's potential.

When the facts surrounding HeLa cell surfaced around 1970, the publicity stoked the fires of racism, class and education, suggesting that the Lacks family were kept in the dark about the existence of the cell line because they were black, poor and uneducated. Scorn was poured on the scientific community who were accused of making millions, whilst the Lacks family was not even in the financial position to provide a headstone for their mother several years after her death.

The publicity train has not stopped since the origins of HeLa cell was revealed and landed in the public domain. In May 2010, Home Box Office (HBO) which is a premier cable channel owned by Time Warner, announced that Oprah Winfrey and Sean Ball are to develop a film project based on the award winning book written by Rebecca Skloot about Henrietta Lacks life.

Every person on planet earth has benefited from HeLa cells in one way or the other, it is hoped that in years the coming years members of her family will at last derive some financial benefits from Henrietta Lacks unique contribution to humanity.


Biomedical, Cancer, Cells, Cervical Cancer, Henrietta Lacks, History, Rebecca Skloot, Science, Scientific, Scientists

Meet the author

author avatar PHYLLIS LOGIE
I am a retired female who has been writing for the past five years. My favorite topics are history and biographies.

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author avatar Songbird B
22nd Mar 2011 (#)

Wow! This is fascinating stuff, Phyllis, what a great informative read! Thank you for sharing this...

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author avatar Anna V. Davis
15th Jan 2012 (#)

This fact is breath taking and words just can't express how I feel. I live in Baltimore and had family who lived in the same area as Ms Lacks. My grandchildren are going to do a report on Ms. Lacks

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author avatar Lorrine S.
25th Aug 2012 (#)

I read the book by Rebecca Skloot last year. This book as wll as the PBS documentary should become required reading for all biology and history courses! Her contribution to the world is immeasurable!

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author avatar Woooooooow123
23rd Sep 2012 (#)

awesome this is amazing stuff

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author avatar STAN JEFF
28th Dec 2012 (#)


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author avatar Robbia Cook
7th Mar 2013 (#)

On February 28, 2013, I attended a Pasadena, CA Library program entitled "An Evening with Sonny Lacks" one of Henrietta Lacks' sons. During the discussion, his daughter Kim stated that her grandmother's grave (Henrietta Lacks) now has a headstone near the headstone of her mother, and the entire burial area where she and her mother is buried has been cleared and cleaned-up. (There was applause following this statement.)
There was no discussion of lawsuits or payments. It was Basicially reminiscing about the HeLa cell situation and how it has affected their family, and discussion of various family members. Mr. Lacks and his daughter also discussed the current educational accomplishments attained by Henrietta Lacks' grandchildren (college degrees). It was a very enlightening evening.

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author avatar Robbia Cook
7th Mar 2013 (#)

An important bit of information I left out of my comments above: A scholarship fund has been established for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, (the author of the wonderful book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"), Donations can be made at
You can also visit the author at

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