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    Posted February 2, 2010 by
    Baltimore, Maryland
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    She was Black, She was a Woman, and She was Dead


                   One Woman's Lasting Legacy

    She was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died.



    Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.


    Henrietta, a mother of five from Baltimore, Maryland lost her battle with cervical cancer Oct. 4, 1951 and left a husband, her five children and family behind without them ever knowing their mother’s legacy and her gift to the world.



    After Lack's death, Dr. George Gey would use her cells for cancer research, which sparked a legal controversy later about patients' rights and ownership of physical matter after death.


    The courts ruled that the cells were the property of the physician. Originally identified as Helen Lane or Helen Larson to protect her identity, it would later be revealed that the cells belonged to her. The cell was renamed the HeLa Cell.



    HeLa cells have proved to be profitable to some in the medical research field and millions of dollars have been made from these cells. Her family, who have struggled financially, with homelessness and poverty  have not received any compensation or even public honor almost sixty years.



    Henrietta's cells were, and still are, some of the strongest cells known to science--they reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours.


    "If allowed to grow uninhibited," Howard Jones and his Hopkins colleagues said in 1971, " HeLa cells would have taken over the world by this time."


    This strength provided a research workhorse to irradiate, poison, and manipulate without inflicting harm; but it also meant research labs were only big enough for one culture: HeLa.



    Henrietta's cells had traveled through the air, on hands, or the tips of pipettes, overpowering any cell cultures they encountered. And researchers had no idea. There was no way to know which cells were growing in the petri dish. And there was no universally accepted test for a cell culture's identity. To accept or reject the theory that HeLa cells had taken over, researchers wanted more evidence.


    This required detailed information about the cells' source. But they knew only the barest facts about Henrietta: She was black, she was a woman, and she was dead.



    Fifty years after her death her daughter got to see what was left of the mother she never knew. A researcher at Johns Hopkins opened the door of a freezer where thousands of vials containing cells that originated from Henrietta were stored.


    Her daughter Deborah Lacks-Pullum gasped. “Oh God,” she said. “I can’t believe all that’s my mother.”



    Just in time for Black History Month a book was released today by Rebecca Skloot "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, (Crown Publishers) http://rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/ that tells the story of her life.


    It also raises many questions on how her family have been treated as well as the ethics of profiting from donated cells. Through interesting tales of her adventures with Henrietta’s family, Sklott tells an amazing story of one woman's life, death, disease and how she continues to live on today.


    For more on HeLa and Henrietta Lacks:





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