Black History Month

Moments in Black History: The story of Henrietta Lacks


As part of JD | Finish Line’s commitment to act against racism, bigotry, hate and violence, we choose to honor Black History Month in an educational way.

Each week in February, we will feature a piece from a Black writer examining significant moments in Black history. We hope you find this series informative and enlightening.

There are events in history that one would have to dig a little deeper to learn about.

Henrietta Lacks and the story of her “immortal” cells is one of them. It’s worth the read or watch, whichever you prefer, because there are so many moving parts to the story that no one telling could really do it justice. 

In January 1951, an African-American tobacco farmer by the name of Henrietta Lacks went to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., after feeling a knot in her womb. She would soon discover she was pregnant and give birth to her fifth child.

Sadly, not long after, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The events that followed would change the world forever.

Doctors extracted samples from Lacks’ tumor and sent it to Dr. George Gey’s tissue lab. This occurred unbeknownst to her and without her consent, because doctors didn’t have to disclose that information at the time.

Dr. Gey had been trying to grow tissues in the lab for decades with no success. To his surprise, Lacks’ cells not only survived, they multiplied. These immortal cells would come to be known by the first two letters in Lacks’ first and last names, forming the nickname “HeLa.”

Due to the durability of Lacks’ HeLa cells, medical professionals would be able to test the effects of a multitude of things without using and endangering humans.

HeLa cells have also been used for research into AIDS, toxins, cancer and more. If you dig deep enough in certain experiments, the root can often be traced by to some form of the HeLa cell. They were crucial to creating the polio vaccine, later helped with in vitro fertilization, cloning, and more. The craziest thing about the cells is that no one could fully understand why Lacks’ cells reacted that way.

Henrietta Lacks died on October 4, 1951 without knowing that her influence on the world would continue for generations.

For years, many claimed the cells were named after a “Helen Lane,” a ploy to throw people off the truth. After years of digging, it was finally revealed to the public what HeLa really was short for, meaning that her family didn’t find out the truth about these cells until 20 years after her death. 

Neither Lacks nor her family received compensation for the extraction and ongoing use of her cells, which is where the story gets complicated.

Medical researchers didn’t have consult patients on use of their tissue or cells because, once discarded, it was not considered his or her property any longer.

It’s easy to see where the lines are blurred, but due to the overwhelming success and progress the HeLa cell line has made in the medical field, it’s an understandably frustrating situation for the Lacks family. 

The Henrietta Lacks story occupies my mind from time to time not only because of how doctors and researchers went about it, but the fact that the origin of these cells went unknown for so many years.

Without Henrietta Lacks, the world of science would look a lot different today. She never received proper appreciation, which is reminiscent of the plight of Black women in this world: impactful but sometimes discarded by history. 

Jasmine is a Digital Marketing Manager and Social Creative Strategist based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Lover of sneakers, the Lakers, and all things mint chocolate.