Recently, I participated in a workshop at Tuskegee University and became astounded by the name of Henrietta Lacks. Before then, I had never heard of the woman.
At the Tuskegee Archives and Museum, the HeLa Cell Exhibition was on display that centered on the life of this woman.
The following article is undoubtedly one of the most unknown and revealed pieces of black history that has not reached the height of being a household name such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and of course, President Barack Obama. Not only black people but all people should recognize and realize the fact that the cells from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks live within all Americans and others to provide the defense to ward off numerous medical problems that we encounter in life.
Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on Aug. 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. At some point, she changed her name to Henrietta. After the death of her mother in 1924, Henrietta was sent to live with her grandfather in a log cabin that had been the slave quarters of a white ancestor’s plantation.
Henrietta shared a room with her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks. In 1935, the cousins had a son they called Lawrence. Henrietta was 14. The couple had a daughter, Elsie, in 1939 and married in 1941.
They moved to Maryland at the urging of another cousin, Fred Garret. There, they had three more children: David Jr., Deborah and Joseph. They placed their daughter Elsie, who was developmentally disabled, in the Hospital for the Negro Insane.
Dr. Jontyle Theresa Robinson of the Tuskegee Legacy Museum wrote the following: “The Patient, The Project, The Partnership: — “The Patient — The exhibit reveals information about the Virginia-born Henrietta Lacks (nee Loretta Pleasant), a black woman with a sixth or seventh grade education, who was a housewife and mother of five. She was not particularly skilled in reading or writing, nor was science a subject she had studied in school.
Due to the immoral racism of 1951, she fell through the cracks of the medical establishment’s ethical barometer. Cancer cells from her body ultimately became available to the global research community as the infamous HeLa cells. Her “private body” became a “public text.” The exhibit on the life of Lacks is on display at the Legacy Museum on the campus and is currently available for the public to view.
In January 1951, Henrietta complained to her cousin about an unusual pain in the body, which they concluded that she may be pregnant. Lacks made a number of visits to her doctor after having her fifth child, complaining that she was constantly bleeding and sometimes heavily.
On Jan. 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for this abnormal situation. Dr. Howard Jones quickly diagnosed her with cervical cancer. During her subsequent radiation treatments, doctors removed two cervical samples from Lacks without her knowledge.
The cells from Henrietta’s made it to the laboratory for research. Within days, researchers noticed an unusual pattern and quality in the cells. Dr. George Otto Gey determined that Lacks’s cells were far more durable than any known to mankind. Therefore, he was able to isolate and multiply her cells, which created a new cell line. Giving Lacks the appropriate recognition, Gey named the resulting conclusion as the “HeLa Cells,” which represented the name of Henrietta Lacks.
The HeLa strain revolutionized the world of medicine. Believe it or not, famed Dr. Jonas Salk used Lacks’ cells to develop the first polio vaccine. As a child, I can remember the nurses from the Health Department flanking the different neighborhoods with the vaccine that was administered to all.
In 1952, Tuskegee University was selected by the National Infantile Paralysis Foundation to carry out the HeLa cell culture project because of the outstanding work of two Tuskegee scientists in cell biology, Russell Brown and James Henderson.
At that time, the people receiving this revolutionary medicine had not a clue that they were getting lifesaving cells that could stop the invasion of a debilitating disease came from the body of a black woman. Silently for years, this information was not revealed to the world of education as a part of black, American nor world history.
In 1973, the Lacks family finally learned about their ancestor after scientists wanted to draw blood samples and other genetic matter from their bodies. Drawing their suspicion, the family conducted research on the HeLa Cells. The results being, their family member Henrietta Lacks had unknowingly given to the world a medical contribution that would serve mankind until the world is no more.
Since 1998, Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa Cells have received growing visibility with such projects as an award-winning documentary from the BBC, the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot and the announced plans for a film by Oprah Winfrey.
Many organizations have profited from Henrietta’s cells since this information was publicly revealed. Also, the Lacks family has been honored at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Foundation for Cancer Research. Morgan State University granted the family a posthumous honorary degree. Dr. Roland Pattillo of the Morehouse School of Medicine donated a headstone for Lacks’s unmarked grave. And a historical marker in Clover, Virginia, was placed to memorialize her.
Legal and ethical implications
The medical case of Henrietta Lacks raised a number of questions on the legality of using her cells to multiply and clone without permission. In 1990, the California Supreme Court upheld the right to commercialize discarded tissue. And in 2013, a German researcher published the genome of a strain HeLa cell without permission from the family.
The Lacks family in August 2013 made an agreement with the National Institutes of Health acknowledging some oversight of the Lacks genome.
The headstone for Lacks is shaped like a book and it reads: “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.”
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