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.
No one ever revealed to Henrietta’s descendants that money was being made with her body. 62 years of mistreating and ignoring a woman and her family who unknowingly helped so many live better lives finally came to an end when they found out but the Lacks family hasn’t, and won’t, see a dime of the profits that came from the findings generated by her cells.
As she was dying, the doctors told her husband that she was too ill to have visits from her children – the youngest of whom was just 13 months old. So instead, Day Lacks would take them to play in a garden across the road from her ward. And despite being in excruciating pain, Lacks would drag herself out of bed to the window, and press her face against the glass looking at the children she knew she’d never hold in her arms again.Her last request was for her children to be taken care of but without money, a mother, and living in a country full of hate, the odds were stacked against them. Nearly all her children were in poor health and none had medical insurance or money for treatment.
Lost And Forgottren
Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave, in a section of a cemetery set aside for blacks. She remained lost and forgotten until the world needed more cells from her family due to corruption from the mishandling of the original cell samples. They went back to the Lacks family for more cells without fully explaining why and still did not provide any form of compensation.
Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, revealed the story to the public.