BIOGRAPHY OF MRS. HENRIETTA LACKS
The immortal Henrietta Pleasant was born on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. After the death of her mother, she moved to Clover, Virginia to live with her paternal grandfather. She married David “Day” Lacks in 1941, and the couple had 5 children. They moved to 713 New Pittsburg Avenue in Turner Station, Maryland in search of economic security in the booming factory of Bethlehem Steel. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment for an unknown illness—she had discovered “a knot” in her abdomen (Rebeccal Skloot 14). After several hospital visits, she died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951 at the age of 31 years.
According to Rebecca Skloot, two days after her death, a lab attendant discovered that the HeLa cells (named for the first two letters of her first and last names) were growing. Led by Dr. George Gey, this marked the first instance of growth of human cells outside the body. The HeLa cells would go on to transform modern medicine. One of the more immediate results was the development of the Polio vaccine. To date, the “Easy-to-grow ‘HeLa’ cells have been used in more than 76,000 studies” (“Privacy Pact” 61).
Yet, it took some twenty-five years before the Lacks family received any knowledge of the immortal contribution their beloved wife and mother was making. According to Rebecca Skloot, David Lacks, Sr., received a call from a Dr. Susan Hsu, a researcher who informed him that a scientific team at the Johns Hopkins had been doing research on her cells for the last 25 years. To date, the Lacks family has received no compensation for the contribution their mother, grandmother, and great grandmother made to modern medicine. The Henrietta Lacks story raises ethical, racial, and socio-economic issues related to the medical industrial complex (Daniel Ncayiyana).
During the early 1990s, long time resident of Turner Station and president of the Henrietta Lack Legacy Group, Courtney Speed, recalls the arrival of a BBC crew coming to Turner Station and looking for Henrietta Lacks’ relatives. They also asked her about the amazing research that Lacks’ cell enabled. Turner Station, she recalls, “was not even on the map. How did they find me in a little African American Beauty Salon?” Speed’s cousin, Dr. Barbara D. Wyche, followed the crew to Deborah Lacks’ home in East Baltimore. The next day, she drove Deborah to the Speed Salon in Turner Station. They formed a friendship that lasted until Deborah’s death (May 11, 2009). Speed says with great conviction, “Deborah wanted the world to know who her mother was.” At the May 2011 commencement, Morgan State University (an HBCU in Baltimore that confers degrees to a large number of African American STEM students each year) awarded Henrietta Lacks the honorary doctorate, posthumously. The award was accepted by David “Sonny” Lacks, on behalf of the family. Beginning in October 2011, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research began hosting its annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series. The goal of the series is “to honor Henrietta Lacks and the positive global impact of HeLa cells…and to serve as an annual reminder of the gratitude, respect, and clear communication due to all research participants” (“The Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture”). Most recently, in August 2013, two descendants of Henrietta Lacks were asked to join “the National Institutes of Health HeLa Genome Data Access working group, which reviews and approves research on the genome” (“Privacy Pact” 61).
Henrietta Lacks’ contributions to modern medicine must be viewed through lens of her being the grand marshal of the genome field. Not only do her cervical cells mark the first time human cells were produced outside of the body, the “cervical carcinoma line, HeLa...were unlike other primary cervical cancer explants in that they grew horrifically in culture, perhaps too aggressively” (Stephen J. Obrien 1656). Some 15 years after their discovery, cytogenetic researcher Walter Nelson-Rees confirmed that HeLa cell contamination in over 40 different human cultures (IBID). Finally, very real and responsible dialogue on medical ethics has resulted from the Henrietta Lacks story.
The HeLa cells have had a world-wide affect on modern medicine—extending life and curing diseases. HeLa cells are responsible for medical advances such as the development of the polio vaccine, the HIV vaccine, gene mapping, cloning, in vitro fertilization, and cancer treatments, and they were the first to go into space to determine how the human body responds in zero gravity environments. HeLa cells are still being used worldwide in laboratories.
Rebecca Skloots’ work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) singularly brought to light Lacks’ story. It will soon be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball. In March of 2013, scientists sequenced the genome of cells taken from Lacks and uploaded it to a public Web site called SNPedia, a Wikipedia-like site for translating genetic information—diminishing even more the public’s trust. During the Fall 2013, the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School opened in Vancouver, Washington. As long as her cells are used in laboratories around the world, medicine will advance, questions of medical ethics will persist, and our children will engage them both.