A little over 100 years ago, on Aug. 1, 1920, an African American baby girl was born in Halifax County, Va. There was nothing particularly special about this child or her family at the time. She was raised on a plantation with her grandfather and a sibling after her mother died in child birth. Her mom had birthed 10 children and the children were separated amongst family members after her mother’s passing. At the tender age of 10, she dropped out of school in order to assist her family with farming tobacco. By 14, she gave birth to her first of five children to her husband, who was also her first cousin. Yet, this relatively unknown historical figure has made significant contributions to the advancement of science and medical research, without her ever knowing. Her story is one that we should all acknowledge and value, as we’ve all benefitted directly or indirectly from her immortal cell line. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and her incredible story should serve as an important reminder to all of us as to why it is so important to share the untold historical events in American history with our children.
After her marriage, Henrietta and her husband moved their family to Maryland. By this time, she was a housewife and mother of five children at the age of 31, in 1951. After the birth of her fifth child, she began to experience pain in her uterus and detected a lump. She determined that she would pay a visit to the doctor to examine her condition. During that time, only certain hospitals serviced Black people. These hospitals were typically substandard in both service and appearance. When Henrietta detected the lump, she had no choice but to seek treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md.
The doctor examined her cervical area and quickly determined that Henrietta had a cervical tumor. Without her permission, he biopsied her cervical cells and provided samples of tumorous and non-tumorous cells to a doctor who was conducting research at the hospital. After examining the cells, the researcher determined that there was something unusual about the cell structure as the cells continued to aggressively divide and multiply. In essence, the cells would not die and provided an opportunity for research to take place that could not be further explored until that time. The absolutely amazing part of this story is that the cells of this poor, unknown, elementary school dropout have never died to this present time! Her immortal cells have been responsible for research leading to a cure for polio, AIDS research, cancer research, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and almost 11,000 patents. Her cells have been sold and marketed for research around the world to this day! Her immortal cells are known to scientists as HeLa cells, in recognition of the first two letters of her first and last name.
Sadly, Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31 to an aggressive cervical cancer. Her family never knew until years later about the tissue samples that were taken for medical research. Moreover, her children were raised in poverty and never benefitted from their mother’s contribution to medical research. In fact, the family only became aware of the information in 1975—nearly 25 years after her death. By that time, researchers had marketed, patented, and became extremely wealthy from her immortal cells.
As we live in a time where society continues to be fractured on the discussions of diversity, equity and inclusivity, Henrietta Lacks’s story is an important reminder of the value of including these contributions in our history books. If we don’t share information such as this amazing story, the value of Henrietta’s story will never be known. As we all recover from the ravaging effects of COVID, we should know that this unknown woman’s cells have helped researchers to find a vaccine that has saved countless lives through the years and even now has minimized the deleterious effects of COVID on the world! Her cells remain alive today and continue to reproduce decades after her death and more than 100 years after her birth! During Black History Month, as we celebrate contributors to Black history past and present, let’s salute an unsung hero and continue to offer opportunities for our children to learn about Black history.
Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools
Patchogue-Medford School District