In 1951, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor named George Gey snipped cells from her cervix. Gey discovered that Lacks’ cells could not only be kept alive, but would also grow indefinitely.
Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. She was one of 10 children, the daughter of tobacco farmers. After her mother’s death in 1924, her father moved the family to Clover, Virginia. Henrietta was raised by her grandfather while her father worked as a brakeman on the railroad.
Also staying at her grandfather’s home was her first cousin, David Lacks. Raised together, they surprised the rest of the family by producing two children together (the first when Henrietta was only 14) and then getting married in 1941. In 1943, they moved to Baltimore County, Maryland.
Henrietta’s life was typical of the time. She attended a segregated school, walking two miles each way every day. After school and on the weekends she would help on the family farm. She had frequent throat infections which lead to a life-long breathing difficulty. School was over for Henrietta after 6th grade, and the Great Depression began. She delivered her first two children on the floor of the house like their father, grandmother, and grandfather before them. Her second child, Lucile, was born retarded. After moving to Baltimore, Henrietta would have three more children with David. She settled into a routine, cleaning and cooking for her husband, their children, and the many cousins she fed each day. David was a good provider, but was not a faithful husband. Henrietta contracted syphilis.
Henrietta was not an alarmist when it came to her health. According to doctor’s notes she refused surgery to repair her deviated septum, refused to be treated for a toothache that lasted five years, and refused treatments for her syphilis symptoms. During her last two pregnancies, she reported blood in her urine and unexplained vaginal bleeding, but refused a sickle cell test. After the birth of her fourth child, sex became painful for Henrietta. She mentioned it to family members, but at the news of her latest pregnancy, it was soon forgotten. Nearly 5 months after delivering a healthy baby boy, Henrietta finally resigned herself to see a doctor.
Her local doctor took one look inside her, saw a lump, and figured it was a sore from syphilis. But the lump tested negative for syphilis, so he told Henrietta she’d better go to the Johns Hopkins gynecology clinic. She was examined by Dr. Howard Jones, who found the lump right away. He’d seen easily a thousand cervical cancer lesions, but never anything like this. Jones cut a small sample and sent it to the pathology lab down the hall for a diagnosis. Either Henrietta’s doctors had missed the tumor during her last exams—which seemed impossible—or it had grown at a terrifying rate.
Prior to receiving treatment for the tumor, cells from the carcinoma were removed for research purposes without her knowledge or permission, which was standard procedure at that time. During her second visit eight days later, Dr. George Otto Gey obtained another sample of her tumor.
Henrietta Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn in place, a common treatment for these types of cancers in 1951. However, her condition worsened. Though she received treatment and blood transfusions, she died of uremic poisoning on October 4, 1951 at the age of thirty-one.
George Gey discovered that Henrietta’s cells did something they’d never seen before: They could be kept alive and they grew. Gey named the sample “HeLa”, after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name, to protect her identity. As the first human cells that could be grown in a lab and were “immortal” (did not die after a few cell divisions), they could then be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research.
By 1954, HeLa was being used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. 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. Today there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.
Rebecca Skloot documents the histories of both the HeLa cell line and the Lacks family in her 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.