Celebrating Henrietta Lacks


Camryn DeVore

Henrietta Lacks was a black women who gave hold to one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of her time after enduring a tragedy; stage I cervical cancer. Neither she or her family knew that her cells would be taken from her body, though those very cells became one of the most important resources in scientific research. Lacks’s cell line was the first to be immortal, allowing scientists to create the vaccine for polio when the epidemic broke out in 1952. Lacks didn’t live a glorious life despite her strong HeLa cells, however. Despite the breakthrough her cells made for immunization, Lacks didn’t live to see the effect her cells would have. She died of cervical cancer just a few months after they were first taken from her cervix.
Lacks was born Aug 1st, 1920 in Roanoke, VA. Four years later she moved in with her grandfather into a log cabin where she met her future husband David “Day” Lacks. Henrietta Lacks, however, died at just 31-years-old after a ten month fight with cervical cancer. Many of her acquaintances  described her as the most caring person they’ve ever met as she always left her home open to anyone in the family that was low on cash or had no one left to turn to. She had four children: Elsie, Deborah, David Jr. and Joseph. Elsie, unfortunately, was later put into a hospital as she was ‘developmentally disabled.’ To her family, Lacks was more than just someone who happened to carry remarkable cells. She was a caring mother, aunt, and always a helpful smile.
Lacks has been labeled one of the most important women in science for the contributions her cells have been able to make. In fact, her family didn’t know until almost 20 years after she died, in the 1970’s, that the cells being used were hers. Lacks’s family’s requests for information on the cells were largely ignored until 1988 when BBC screened a documentary about Lacks and her unknowing contributing to science. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot released a book illustrating the details of Lacks’s life rather than just focusing on her cells. Skloot brought light to the struggle the family went through as they tried to understand that in some ways parts of Lacks were scattered through her cells around the world. In 2017, Oprah Winfrey went on to star in a film outlining the events detailed in Skloot’s book. Winfrey showed that there was more to the story of Henrietta’s life than just her contribution the vaccination of polio.

Since then, organizations began to recognize the Lacks family. Lacks herself was granted a posthumous honorary degree by Morgan State University. Organizations that have benefited from the HeLa cells have since recognized Henrietta for her contribution. The Lacks family has been publicly recognized at the Smithsonian Institution and National Foundation for Cancer Research.