I first became interested in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” after it was mentioned by one of my friends recently and I had always wondered about HeLa, I did know that HeLa was a shortened name and that the cell line was taken from a woman in the 50’s. However, embarrassingly I did not know much more than this. After finishing “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, and just in time for Women’s History Month, I thought I would start off this months theme of “Inspiring Women” by talking about Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta Lacks is the origin of the cell line HeLa. She was a black woman from the 50s with a family, a home and a life that did not (or so she thought) involve becoming a household name. The truly heartbreaking fact is that these cells were taken from a young woman without her consent. Henrietta Lacks passed away on October 4th 1951 at the age of 31, however her cells currently live on and have been extremely important in many areas of medicine. Gene mapping, the effects of zero gravity on cells, research on the HIV virus, polio vaccine, leukemia research are all just a few areas where these cells have advanced medicine that would otherwise have struggled. Until Henrietta’s cells were grown, no one had managed to harvest and grow cells in vitro (despite numerous attempts).
Henrietta Lacks was originally born Loretta Pleasant August 1st 1920. Nicknamed Hennie (although it’s unsure when this started), she grew up in Clover, Virginia (moving there after her mother died in childbirth). She worked as a Tobacco Farmer in Clover from a young age and had two children (Lawrence and Elsie) with Day (David) Lacks before they were married in April 10, 1941. After this, Henrietta and her family moved to Maryland for Day to take a job with Bethlehem Steel. Here, she gave birth to four more children: David “Sonny” Lacks Jr. Deborah Lacks Pullum and Joseph Lacks, now known as Zakariyya.
Henrietta was a strong, dependable and friendly woman who always took people in when they needed a roof over their head. When she wasn’t cooking for her children and keeping the household running, she was dancing with her friend Sadie and playing bingo or cards with her husband. Her nails were always kept neat and clean and a deep shade of red. I think this personal fact really hit home to me that Henrietta really was just a person with hopes and dreams, and quirks like always painting her nails. She also had a favourite silk slip that she hand washed every night, which I relate to as nothing feels as good as freshly washed pyjamas!
She was first aware that something was wrong when she felt what she described as a “knot” in her stomach. Originally, the medical staff thought she was pregnant and she was. However, months after giving birth to her last child Henrietta began haemorrhaging and visited John Hopkin’s again (at the time, the only nearby hospital that would treat black patients). After a cell biopsy, Henrietta was diagnosed with epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, later found to be adenocarcinoma of the cervix: though this would not have changed her treatment at the time. Henrietta was originally treated with radium, however her cancer metastasised (spread) and after a gruelling fight, she passed in October, 1951.
It is a testament to the impact she had on the people around her that when she required blood transfusions and the hospital refused to use more stock from the blood banks, the young men that she had fed and watered while she was well, rallied together and donated their blood to help her.
During this traumatic time, Henrietta’s cells were taken and passed to a Hopkins physician, George Otto Gey, who was researching and attempting to grow cells in vitro to allow for more in depth cell examination. The Hopkins website still, to this day, notes that the cells were “unknowingly donated” however this is really just a euphemism for “taken without consent”. Henrietta’s cells were different in that they replicated at a much higher rate than “normal” cells, and able to survive much longer in vitro: long enough for in depth examination. The term “HeLa” came about as all cells at that time were named using the first two letters of the patients first and last name.
Henrietta Lacks had no idea, but her cells were invaluable to science. Rebecca Skloot’s book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is an incredible tribute to Henrietta and her family and I would truly urge you all to read it. This blog post barely touches on it because I wanted Henrietta to be the main topic, but the racial health inequality experienced by Henrietta and her family and ethical issues surrounding her case were stomach turning (and are stomach turning). Her family were taken advantage of time and time again and it was truly heartbreaking to read.
I am relieved that Henrietta is finally being recognised: in 2014 she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame, in 2017 a minor planet was named after her (359426 Lacks), the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research established the annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series and in 2018 announced a new building to be named after Lacks on the medical campus (to name a few).
So, next time you hear the term “HeLa” please think of Henrietta and the wonderful woman behind the cells that changed science forever!
Henrietta Image: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/science/after-decades-of-research-henrietta-lacks-family-is-asked-for-consent.html