Friday, August 3, 2012

Henrietta Lacks: Unwitting Contributor to Medicine

HeLa will live forever, perhaps. The dance of HeLa continues; they're all dancing out there somewhere...the stage is very broad and wide, and the curtain has by no means gone down on them. The music plays on.  
- George Gey

It’s an early Wednesday morning and you are procrastinating to get out of bed for that appointment you have at the lab. Several weeks ago, you met with your doctor (after waiting 45 minutes past your scheduled appointment time) for those nasty headaches you’ve been having only to be told that she was going to send you to get some blood work done...somewhere else. Grrrrr. So here you are being prodded by a complete stranger who is failing at attempting to make you comfortable (what happened to the other girl who usually worked there?). The only that is on your mind at that point is how much blood is being drawn from your arm. Do they really need that much? Now they need a urine sample. Great. After that (traumatic) ordeal you are told that the results will be sent to your doctor. Another appointment....

We are all familiar with this scene, right? Those annoying doctor’s visits that make us wish we just treated ourselves at home with some aspirin instead of doing the run-a-round from one medical facility to another. There is the random people poking and prodding at us that make us want to scream (unless the person is a total hottie...then they can poke and prod all they want). And of course there is the incessant collection of our bodily fluids and cells. But do any of us actually stop and think about what is being done with our “parts.” Are they only being used for diagnoses or is there something else going on behind the scenes that we are unaware of? What was that? You never thought about it? Well that goes for you and millions of other people. We put a lot of trust into someone wearing a uniform authority whether it is a navy blue police uniform or a starch, white lab coat.

Henrietta Lacks
(from City Paper)
Henrietta Lacks probably put her trust into medical professionals as well. Ever heard of HeLa cells? Well Henrietta Lacks is the immortal woman behind them. Henrietta was the offspring poor tobacco farmers in Virginia. In 1943, she moved to Turner Station (with her husband, David Lacks), which was a segregated community located in Baltimore (Skloot, 2000). After giving birth to five children a little under a decade later, Henrietta made an unusual discovery: blood spotting on her underwear (Smith, 2002). On February 1, 1951, she went to John Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital that provided care for people of color for free, only to find out that she had developed a tumor on her cervix...and it was malignant (Skloot, 2000; Smith , 2002).

Radiation treatments soon followed, but not before a Hopkins resident took another sample from Henrietta’s tumor, this time without her knowledge (Skloot, 2000). The sample was sent to George Gey, head of tissue culture research at the hospital, who had been searching for a line of human cells that would grow outside of the human body (Skloot, 2000). Gey had attempted to keep other cells alive with little success. But he hit the jackpot with Henrietta’s cells. They multiplied like nothing the researcher had seen before (Skloot, 2000; Smith, 2002). The cells were eventually dubbed “HeLa” cells, the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names. Meanwhile, the source of the HeLa cells lay dying in a segregated hospital ward; her body was deteriorating rapidly. She breathed her last breath on October 4, 1951. On that same day, Gey appeared on television with a vial of Henrietta’s cells claiming them to be the future of curing cancer (Smith, 2002). Oh, the irony!

HeLa cells were so durable that they could even survive shipping via mail and Gey began sending them to his colleagues around the country and they, in turn, sent them to their colleagues (Smith, 2002). HeLa cells even made their way outside the country to labs in Chile, Russia, and Japan. The manners in which HeLa cells were used were countless. They were used in cancer and AIDS research, they were among the first cells that were mapped and cloned, they helped to create the polio vaccine and cancer medicines, they were used to test the effects toxic substances, and even flew on a shuttle into space to test the effects of zero gravity on human cells (Skloot, 2000; Smith, 2002).

Wait. Russia? Chile? Space?! In her short lifetime, Henrietta only traveled as far as Baltimore. If you weighed the amount of HeLa cells that have been produced since Henrietta’s death, they would weigh 50 million metric tons—the equivalent of about 150 Empire State Buildings!!

HeLa cells have obviously played an important role in science and medicine. So, why is it that the woman whom the cells are from is an obscure figure in history? Why is it that Henrietta is buried in some unmarked grave in Virginia? Why is it that her descendants cannot even afford health insurance despite the contributions she has unwittingly made?

More than only racism (cells were taken from anyone and everyone without regard to race, including from the researchers themselves and their families, but with no success) is a sense of selfish arrogance. In a world that has built societies upon taking from nature without giving back (or even acknowledging nature’s existence), stories like this are not surprising. Take. Take. Take. That is the attitude. Who stops to think about where that carrot in the grocery store came from? Or that gas that fills up our cars’ tanks? More than coming from a farm or a gas pump, they came from the earth. The human body is being used in the same manner when it comes to Henrietta Lacks. All of the credit is going to researchers while Henrietta is in the shadows (the fate of the black woman, right?).

Again, I have to wonder what happens to our “parts” when they are sent to a lab for testing. Do we unknowingly give up the rights over our own cells once they are removed from our bodies? How many of us are Henriettas?

NOTE: Rebecca Skloot is also the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010).


Skloot, R. (2000, April). Henrietta’s dance. John Hopkins Magazine, 52(2). Retrieved from

Smith, V. (2002, April 17). Wonder woman: The life, death, and life after death of Henrietta Lacks, unwitting heroine of modern medical medicine. City Paper. Retrieved from


Post a Comment