Henrietta Lacks circa 1945–1951
August 1, 1920
|Died||October 4, 1951
|Spouse(s)||David Lacks (1915–2002)|
David "Sonny" Lacks, Jr.
Deborah (Lacks) Pullum
Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joseph Lacks)
|Parents||Eliza (1886–1924) and John Randall Pleasant I (1881–1969)|
Henrietta Lacks (August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) (sometimes erroneously called Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane or Helen Larson) was an African-American woman who was the unwitting source of cells (from her cancerous tumor) which were cultured by George Otto Gey to create an immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line.
Early life (1920–1940) 
Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, to Eliza (1886–1924) and John Randall Pleasant I (1881–1969). Her family is uncertain how her name changed from Loretta to Henrietta. Eliza, her mother, died giving birth to her tenth child in 1924. Henrietta's father felt unable to handle the children, so he took them all to Clover, Virginia and distributed the children among relatives. Henrietta, nicknamed Hennie, ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks.
Later life (1941–1950) 
Pleasant married her first cousin, David "Day" Lacks (1915–2002), in Halifax County, Virginia. David had already been living with Henrietta's grandfather when she moved there at age 4. Their marriage occurred on April 10, 1941, after their first two children were born, the first when Henrietta was 14.
At the end of 1941, their cousin Fred Garret convinced the Lacks couple to leave the tobacco farm and have Day work at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrow's Point steel mill. Soon, they moved—Day first, then Henrietta and their two oldest children, Lawrence and Lucile Elsie Pleasant (Elsie)—to Maryland. David bought a house for the family with the money Garret gave Day when he left to go overseas. Their house was on New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turner Station, now a part of Dundalk, Baltimore County, Maryland. This community was one of the largest and one of the youngest of the approximately forty African American communities in Baltimore County.
Day and Henrietta had five children together: Lawrence (b. 1935), Elsie (1939–1955), David "Sonny" Jr. (b. 1947), Deborah (1949–2009), and Joseph (b. 1950, later changed name to Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman). Joseph Lacks, Henrietta's last child, was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital in November 1950, just four and a half months before Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer. Elsie was described by the family as "different", "deaf and dumb" and in 1955 died in the Hospital for the Negro Insane (which was later renamed Crownsville Hospital Center and was also known as Crownsville State Hospital). Elsie had been placed there about 1950, around the same time Henrietta discovered that she had lumps and unusual bleeding.
Diagnosis and death (1951) 
On January 29, 1951, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins Hospital because she felt a knot inside her. It all started when she asked her cousins to feel her belly, asking if they felt the lump that she did. Her cousins assumed correctly that she was pregnant. But, after giving birth to her fifth child, Joseph, Henrietta started bleeding abnormally and profusely. Her local doctor tested her for syphilis, which came back negative, and referred her to Johns Hopkins.
Johns Hopkins was their only choice for a hospital, since it was the only one in proximity to them that treated black patients. Howard Jones, her new doctor, examined Henrietta and the lump in her cervix. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. He cut off a small part of the tumor and sent it to the pathology lab. Soon after, Jones discovered she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix Stage 1 (cervical cancer).
Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn in place. After several days in place, the tubes were removed and she was released from Johns Hopkins with instructions to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up. During her radiation treatments for the tumor, two samples of Henrietta's cervix were removed—a healthy part and a cancerous part—without her permission. The cells from her cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey. These cells would eventually become the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research.
In significant pain and without improvement, Lacks returned to Hopkins on August 8 for a treatment session, but asked to be admitted. She remained at the hospital until the day of her death. Though she received treatment and blood transfusions, she died of uremic poisoning on October 4, 1951 at the age of thirty-one. A subsequent partial autopsy showed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body.
Henrietta Lacks was buried without a tombstone in a family cemetery in Lackstown, a part of Clover in Halifax County, Virginia. Her exact burial location is not known, although the family believes it is within feet of her mother's gravesite. Lackstown is the name of the land that has been held by the (black) Lacks family since they received it from the (white) Lacks family, who had owned the ancestors of the black Lackses when slavery was legal. Many members of the black Lacks family were also descended from the white Lacks family. A row of boxwoods separates the graves of whites from those of the blacks buried in the family cemetery. For decades, Henrietta Lacks' mother had the only tombstone of the five graves in the family cemetery in Lackstown, and Henrietta's own grave was unmarked.  In 2010, however, Dr. Roland Pattillo of the Morehouse School of Medicine donated a headstone for Lacks after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  The headstone, which is shaped like a book, reads:
In scientific research 
The cells from Henrietta's tumor were given to researcher George Gey, who "discovered that [Henrietta's] cells did something they'd never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow." Before this, cells cultured from other cells would only survive for a few days. Scientists spent more time trying to keep the cells alive than performing actual research on the cells, but some cells from Lacks's tumor sample behaved differently from others. George Gey was able to isolate one specific cell, multiply it, and start a cell line. Gey named the sample HeLa, after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks' name. As the first human cells grown in a lab that were "immortal" (they do not die after a few cell divisions), they could be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research.
As reporter Michael Rogers stated, the growth of HeLa by a researcher at the hospital helped answer the demands of the 10,000 who marched for a cure to polio shortly before Lacks' death. By 1954, the HeLa strain of cells was being used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. To test Salk's new vaccine, the cells were quickly put into mass production in the first-ever cell production factory.
Demand for the HeLa cells quickly grew. Since they were put into mass production, Henrietta's cells have been mailed to scientists around the globe for "research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits". HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells, and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.
In the early 1970s, the family of Henrietta Lacks started getting calls from researchers who wanted blood samples from them to learn the family's genetics (eye colors, hair colors, and genetic connections). The family questioned this, which led to them learning about the removal of Henrietta's cells.
In 1996, Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the mayor of Atlanta recognized the late Henrietta Lacks' family for her posthumous contributions to medicine and health research.
Her life was commemorated annually by Turner Station residents for a few years after Morehouse's commemoration. A congressional resolution in her honor was presented by Robert Ehrlich following soon after the first commemoration of her, her family, and her contributions to science in Turner Station.
Events in the Turner Station's community have also commemorated the contributions of others including Mary Kubicek, the laboratory assistant who discovered that HeLa cells lived outside the body, as well as Dr. Gey and his nurse wife, Margaret Gey, who together after over 20 years of attempts were eventually able to grow human cells outside of the body.
On September 14, 2011, the Board of Directors of Washington ESD 114 Evergreen School District chose to name a new health and bioscience high school in her honor. The new school, scheduled to open in the fall of 2013, will be named Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School. "It is such an honor to name our new school after a person who so impacted the world of medicine and science," said school board member Victoria Bradford, who also served on the naming committee. "It is also a privilege to be the first organization to publicly memorialize Henrietta Lacks by naming this school building after her."
October 11, in Atlanta, Georgia, is Henrietta Lacks' Day.
In media 
In 1998, a one-hour BBC documentary on Lacks and HeLa directed by Adam Curtis, won the Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Immediately following the film's airing in 1997, an article on HeLa cells, Lacks, and her family was published by reporter Jacques Kelly in The Baltimore Sun. In the 1990s, the Dundalk Eagle published the first article on her in a newspaper in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and it continues to announce upcoming local commemorative activities. The Lacks family was also honored at the Smithsonian Institution. In 2001, it was announced that the National Foundation for Cancer Research would be honoring "the late Henrietta Lacks for the contributions made to cancer research and modern medicine" on September 14. Because of the events of September 11, 2001, the event was canceled.
In articles published in 2000  and 2001 and in her 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot documents the histories of both the HeLa cell line and the Lacks family. Henrietta's husband, David Lacks, was told little following her death. Suspicions fueled by racial issues prevalent in the South (see Night Doctors) were compounded by issues of class and education. For their part, members of the Lacks family were kept in the dark about the existence of the tissue line. When its existence was revealed in two articles written in March 1976 by Michael Rogers, one in the Detroit Free Press and one in Rolling Stone, family members were confused about how Henrietta's cells could have been taken without consent and how they could still be alive 25 years after her death.
In May 2010, The Virginian-Pilot published two articles on Lacks, HeLa, and her family, which mentions that the Morehouse School of Medicine has donated the money for Henrietta's grave as well as her daughter Elsie, who died in 1955, to finally have headstones. Her grandchildren wrote her epitaph: "Henrietta Lacks August 01, 1920 – October 04, 1951 In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever. Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family"
On May 31, 2011 Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine released the CD Enhanced Methods of Questioning with a song about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa immortal cell line called "The Cells That Will Not Die".
In May of 2012, self-proclaimed "Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel" band Yeasayer officially released "Henrietta", the first single from their third album Fragrant World. Lead singer Chris Keating reports that Henrietta Lacks' legacy inspired the creation of this song.
- Batts, Denise Watson (2010-05-10). "Cancer cells killed Henrietta Lacks - then made her immortal". The Virginian-Pilot. pp. 1,12–14. Retrieved 2012-08-19. Note: Some sources report her birthday as August 2, 1920 vs. August 1, 1920.
- Grady, Denise (2010-02-01). "A Lasting Gift to Medicine That Wasn’t Really a Gift". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Skloot 2010, p. 18
- Eliza was born on July 12, 1886. She died on October 28, 1929 according to the birth U.S. Census, but in 1924 according to her tombstone.
- John Randall Pleasant I was born on March 2, 1881, and he died in January 1969 in Saxe, Charlotte County, Virginia, according to the Social Security Death Index
- World War I draft card of John Randall Pleasant I (1881–1969)
- Eliza and John had married in 1906, and Henrietta's siblings included: Edith (1905–?); Edna (1906–?); John Randall II (1909–?); Charles (1912–1955); Viola (1914–?); Alleys (1916–?); Lawrence (1918–?); Gladys (c. 1918–?); Henry (1922–?); Felicia (1923–?); and Georgia (1929–?) according to the 1930 U.S. Census
- "Turner's Station African American Survey District, Dundalk, Baltimore County 1900–1950" (PDF). Baltimore County. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- "Baltimore county architectural survey African American Thematic Study" (PDF). Baltimore County Office of Planning and The Landmarks Preservation Commission. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Skloot 2010, p. 33
- Smith, Van (2002-04-17). "Wonder Woman: The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science". Baltimore City Paper. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Skloot, Rebecca (April 2000). "Henrietta's Dance". Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Skloot, Rebecca (2010-05-29). "A Historic Day: Henrietta Lacks’s Long Unmarked Grave Finally Gets a Headstone – Culture Dish". Scienceblogs.com. Retrieved 2012-12-21.
- McLaughlin, Tom (2010-05-31). "An epitaph, at last | South Boston Virginia News". TheNewsRecord.com. Retrieved 2012-12-21.
- Claiborne, Ron; Wright IV, Sydney (2010-01-31). "How One Woman's Cells Changed Medicine". ABC World News. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Skloot 2010, p. 96
- Margonelli, Lisa, "Eternal Life", The New York Times, February 5, 2010
- "Morehouse School of Medicine Hosts 14th Annual HeLa Women's Health Conference". MSM News. 2009-08-24. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- "Morgan Celebrates More than 1,200 Degree Recipients". Morgan State University. 2011-05-21. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Buck, Howard (2011-09-14). "Bioscience school gets official name". The Columbian. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- "New high school name to honor Henrietta Lacks". KATU. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- "The Way of All Flesh". Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- The Way of All Flesh by Adam Curtis at Google Videos (Adobe Flash video)
- Zielinski, Sarah (2010-01-22). "Henrietta Lacks' 'Immortal' Cells". Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Skloot 2010, p. 299
- Henrietta's Dance, Johns Hopkins Magazine, April 2000
- Cells That Save Lives are a Mother's Legacy, New York Times, November 17, 2001
- Rogers, Michael (March 21, 1976). "The HeLa Strain". Detroit Free Press.
- Rogers, Michael (March 25, 1976). "The Double-Edged Helix". Rolling Stone.
- "CDs (Mal Webb)". MalWebb.Com. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Webb, Mal. "Helen Lane". MalWebb.Com. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Batts, Denise Watson (2010-05-30). "After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone". The Virginian-Pilot. pp. HR1,7. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- Thomas, June (2010-05-19). "Ripped From Which Headline? "Immortal"". Slate. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
- "Yeasayer reveal new track 'Henrietta' – listen". NME. 2012-05-16.
Further reading 
- Skloot, Rebecca (2010), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, New York City: Random House, ISBN 978-1-4000-5217-2
- Russell Brown and James H M Henderson, 1983, "The Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa Cells at Tuskegee Institute", 1953–1955. J Hist Med allied Sci 38(4):415–43
- Harold M. Schmeck Jr. (1986-05-15). "Hela's Legacy". The New York Times.
- Michael Gold (January 1986). A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal It Caused. State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0887060991.
- Hannah Landecker 2000 "Immortality, In Vitro. A History of the HeLa Cell Line". In Brodwin, Paul E., ed.: Biotechnology and Culture. Bodies, Anxieties, Ethics. Bloomington/Indianapolis, 53–72, ISBN 0-253-21428-9
- Hannah Landecker, 1999, "Between Beneficence and Chattel: The Human Biological in Law and Science," Science in Context, 203–225.
- Hannah Landecker, 2007, Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies. "HeLa" is the title of the fourth chapter.
- Priscilla Wald, "American Studies and the Politics of Life" American Quarterly 64.2 (June 2012): 185-204
- Priscilla Wald, "Cells, Genes, and Stories: HeLa’s Journey from Labs to Literature," Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of Race, DNA and History, ed. Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, Rutgers University Press (2012): 247-65
- Priscilla Wald, "Science Fiction and Medical Ethics," The Lancet (June 14, 2009; 371.9629)
- The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, a foundation established to, among other things, help provide scholarship funds and health insurance to Henrietta Lacks's family.
- RadioLab segment, "Henrietta's Tumor," featuring Deborah Lacks and audio of Skloot's interviews with her, and original recordings of scenes from the book.
- February 2010 CBS Sunday Morning Segment, "The Immortal Henrietta Lacks," featuring the Lacks Family
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book website with additional features (photo/video/audio)
- Wired Magazine 2010 article with timeline of HeLa contributions to science
- The Way Of All Flesh — Documentary by Adam Curtis
- Tavis Smiley interview with Rebecca Skloot about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
- New York Times review of Rebecca Skloot's book on Henrietta
- January 2010 Smithsonian magazine article
- Family Talks about Dead Mother Whose Cells fight Cancer (Jet Magazine – April 1, 1976)
- 25 Years after Death, Black Mother's Cells Live for Cancer Study (Jet Magazine – April 1, 1976)
- Helen Lane, a song by Mal Webb
- Audio Interview with Rebecca Skloot about her book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"
- Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine
- Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School (HeLa High)
- Video for Henrietta's Cells for Bellevue College