Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks circa 1945–1951
Born Loretta Pleasant
August 1, 1920
Roanoke, Virginia
Died October 4, 1951 (aged 31)
Baltimore, Maryland
Occupation Tobacco farmer
Spouse David Lacks (1915–2002)
Children Lawrence Lacks
Elsie Lacks
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)[1] (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.[2]


Early life (1920–1940)

Henrietta Lacks, born Loretta Pleasant, on August 1, 1920[1][3] in Roanoke, Virginia, to Eliza (1886–1924)[4] & John Randall Pleasant I (1881–1969).[5][6][7] Her family is uncertain how her name changed from Loretta to Henrietta.[1] 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 between relatives. Henrietta, nicknamed Hennie, ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks.[1]

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 on April 10, 1941, after their first two children were born (the first when Henrietta was just 14), surprised many in the family as they had been raised like brother and sister.[1]

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 Turners Station, now a part of Dundalk, Baltimore County, Maryland. This community was one of the largest[8][9] and one of the youngest[9] 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.[1] 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.[1]

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 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.[10] 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.[1]

Lacks returned for the X-ray treatments. However, her condition worsened and the Hopkins doctors treated her with antibiotics, thinking that her problem might be complicated by an underlying venereal disease (she had neurosyphilis and presented with acute gonorrhea at one point as well).

In significant pain and without improvement, Lacks returned to Hopkins on August 8th for a treatment session but asked to be admitted. She remained at the hospital until her death.[1] Though she received treatment and blood transfusions, she died of uremic poisoning on October 4, 1951, at 12:30 A.M. at the age of thirty-one.[11] A subsequent partial autopsy showed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her body.[1]

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.[1] 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.[1] For decades, Henrietta Lacks’ mother has had the only tombstone of the five graves in the family cemetery in Lackstown.[11][12]


In scientific research

See also: HeLa

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.”[13] Before Henrietta, cells cultured from other patients would only survive for a few days. Scientists spent more time trying to keep the cells alive than performing actual research on the cells. Some cells in Lacks’s tissue sample behaved differently than 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, to protect her identity. As the first human cells grown in a lab that 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.[1]

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.[1][11] To test Salk’s new vaccine, the cells were quickly put into mass production in the first-ever cell production factory.[14]

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”.[11] HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products.[1] Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells.[1][15]

Doctors still have not discovered the reason for HeLa cells’ unique vigor, but suspect that it is due to altered telomerase function. There are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.[1]

In the early 1970s, the family started getting calls from researchers who wanted blood samples from them to learn the family’s genetics (eye colours, hair colours, and genetic connections). The family wondered why and this is when they learned about the removal of Henrietta’s cells. No one else in the family had the traits that made her cells unique.[1]


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.[16]

Her life was commemorated annually by Turners 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 Turners Station.

Events in the Turners 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.[1]

In 2011, Morgan State University granted her a posthumous honorary degree.[17]

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.[18] “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.”[19]

In media

In 1998, Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh, 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.[20] 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.[21]

In 2000[22] Mal Webb released a CD with a song about Lacks called Helen Lane.[23]

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 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[24] and one in Rolling Stone,[1][25] 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.[20]

In May 2010, The Virginian-Pilot published two articles on Lacks, HeLa, and her family,[1][26] 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”[1][26]

In May 2010, HBO announced that Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball would develop a film project based on Skloot’s book.[26]

On May 17, 2010, NBC ran a fictionalized version of Lacks’ story on Law & Order, titled “Immortal”. An article in Slate called the episode “shockingly close to the true story.”[27]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Batts, Denise Watson (May 9, 2010). “HeLa Cancer Cells Killed Henrietta Lacks. Then They Made Her Immortal.”. The Virginian-Pilot: pp. 1, 12–14. Retrieved 2010-05-09.Note: Some sources report her birthday as August 2, 1920 vs. August 1, 1920.
  2. ^ Grady, Denise (February 1, 2010). “A Lasting Gift to Medicine That Wasn’t Really a Gift”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-02-01.
  3. ^ Skloot 2010, p. 18
  4. ^ Eliza was born on July 12, 1886 and she died on October 28, 1924 according to her tombstone.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ World War I draft card of John Randall Pleasant I (1881–1969)
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ “Turner’s Station African American Survey District, Dundalk, Baltimore County 1900–1950” (PDF). Baltimore County. Retrieved 2010-05-09.
  9. ^ a b “Baltimore county architectural survey African American Thematic Study” (PDF). Baltimore County Office of Planning and The Landmarks Preservation Commission. Retrieved 2010-05-09.
  10. ^ Skloot 2010, p. 33
  11. ^ a b c d Smith, Van (April 17, 2002). “The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science.”. Baltimore City Paper. Retrieved 2007-08-21.
  12. ^ Skloot, Rebecca (2000). “Henrietta’s Dance”. Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved 2007-02-14.
  13. ^ Claiborne, Ron; Wright IV, Sydney (31 January 2010). “How One Woman’s Cells Changed Medicine”. ABC World News. Retrieved 28 February 2010.
  14. ^ Skloot 2010, p. 96
  15. ^ Margonelli, Lisa, “Eternal Life”, The New York Times, February 5, 2010
  16. ^ “Morehouse School of Medicine Hosts 14th Annual HeLa Women’s Health Conference”. MSM News. Retrieved 28 February 2010.
  17. ^ “Morgan Celebrates More than 1,200 Degree Recipients”. Morgan State University press release. Retrieved 21 May 2011.
  18. ^ Buck, Howard (Wednesday, September 14, 2011). “Bioscience school gets official name”. The Columbian. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
  19. ^ “New high school name to honor Henrietta Lacks”. KATU. Retrieved 14 September 2011.
  20. ^ a b Zielinski, Sarah (January 22, 2010). “Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells”. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2010-05-30.
  21. ^ Skloot 2010, p. 299
  22. ^ “CDs (Mal Webb)”. MalWebb.Com. Retrieved December 21, 2011.
  23. ^ Webb, Mal. “Helen Lane”. MalWebb.Com. Retrieved December 21, 2011.
  24. ^ Rogers, Michael (March 21, 1976). “The HeLa Strain”. Detroit Free Press.
  25. ^ Rogers, Michael (March 25, 1976). “The Double-Edged Helix”. Rolling Stone.
  26. ^ a b c Batts, Denise Watson (May 30, 2010). “After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone”. The Virginian-Pilot: pp. HR1, 7. Retrieved 2010-05-30.
  27. ^ June, Thomas (19 May 2010). “Ripped From Which Headlines? “Immortal””. Slate. Retrieved 21 May 2010.



Further reading

  • 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
  • Michael Gold, A Conspiracy of Cells, 1986, State University of New York Press
  • 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 0253214289
  • 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.

External links



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