On January 29, 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital out of desperation, pain, and fear. She was bleeding abnormally and profusely from a recent childbirth and had an unusual knot inside her body.
Hated Because She Was Black
She was sent to Johns Hopkins because no other hospitals in the area would attend to black people; at the time it was believed that blacks were not worthy to have medical care since they had very little value.
Just to understand how difficult it was for her to get medical help, due to racial prejudice, here’s an example of a black student trying to go to a white school in the same time period. This simple act required an armed escort by the National Guard. She had to endure the crowd screaming “Lynch her, Lynch her,” as she walked.
Howard W. Jones, her new doctor, examined Henrietta and the lump in her cervix. He cut off a small part of the tumor and sent it to the pathology lab. Soon after, Lacks learned she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. On October 4, 1951, Henrietta Lacks died at the hospital.
Saved Millions Of Lives
Henrietta Lacks cells – now known as “HeLa Cells”, using the first two letters of each of her names – became the first immortal human cell line in history. Scientists at the hospital where she died, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, created the first continuously reproducing cell line in history. Her cells have been responsible for some of the most important medical advances of all time.
- The polio vaccine
- Gene mapping
Many health milestones owe everything to the life and death of this young mother. In the years since 1951, HeLa cells have been exposed to endless toxins and infections; they’ve been zapped by radiation, and tested with countless drugs. And all this has led to new knowledge that helped shape the way medicine moved in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. The lives saved over the last 60 years could range in the billions given the number of vaccines administered and generations to be touched.