The Story of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks is a name that may not ring a bell with many people but her contribution to mankind far outshadow the obscurity of her name.

Born on August 18, 1920, Henrietta was the daughter of African-American tobacco farmers in Roanoke, Virginia. When Henrietta was about four years old, she went to live with her grandparents. From that point, not much is known about her life except that in 1941 she married her first cousin and eventually had five children from that union.

Ten years later in 1951, Henrietta was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital after being diagnosed with cervical cancer by the now famous Dr. Howard W. Jones. Without her knowledge or consent, some of Henrietta’s cancerous tumor cells were given to Dr. George Gey who along with his wife, made an amazing discovery. Henrietta’s cells did not die like most cells. They were immortal! For many years doctors had been trying to develop an immortal cell line for their research, without much success. Dr. Gey managed to culture the cells, propagating the world’s first immortal human cell line.

Sadly, it was the hardiness and aggressiveness of her cancer cells that led to her death while simultaneously providing a means to save others. The newly cultured cell line became known as HeLa, after the first and last name of Henrietta Lacks, the donor. Since then the HeLa cells have become a mainstay in biomedical research. They have been used to study everything from cancers and their development to the research and treatment of AIDS/HIV. One of the most famous contribution of her cells to medicine however, was the use of the HeLa cells in the development of the polio vaccine.

To this day, scientists still don’t fully understand the mechanism that allows these cells to live on. Since the first cells were cultured 61 years ago, Henrietta Lacks has virtually lived on in the form of her cell culture since her death in 1951.

In January 2010, The Henrietta Lacks Foundation ( ) was founded by Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” with a portion of the proceeds from her book being donated to the foundation. According to the foundation website, ” The Foundation strives to provide financial assistance to needy individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefitting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent. The Foundation gives those who have benefited from those contributions — including scientists, universities, corporations, and the general public — a way to show their appreciation to such research subjects and their families.”

The foundation reports that as of January 18, 2011, it has awarded 27 grants. Eighteen for tuition and books, 7 for medical and/or dental care and 2 for emergency needs. For more information or to make a donation visit: or contact them at: .