Editor’s Note: March is Women’s History Month. Throughout March, contributors to Spirit of Abilene will pay tribute to Women of Influence.


Henrietta Lacks was known to her family and friends, but her story and contribution lay buried for over 30 years before bursting into the world of medicine and ethics. Even then, it was still more decades before Rebecca Skloot wrote the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) and an HBO movie appeared in 2017. Much has happened between the beginning of the story and now.

In early 1951 Henrietta suffered severe vaginal bleeding. She made a medical appointment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, at the time one of the few hospitals serving African American patients. It is important to remember that, although Johns Hopkins was already established as a leading medical center, in 1951 medical knowledge and medical ethics were, at best, primitive compared to today.

Diagnosed with cervical cancer, she was destined to live for only a few more months. During her first medical examination, the physician followed the usual hospital protocol and took a small number of cells from her cervix—a sample for biopsy. This procedure was apparently performed on every patient in this situation.

Life exists at different levels. We can correctly speak about a human body being alive, but there are also other appropriate ways to use the term. In a basic biology course, students are taught that the smallest unit of life is the cell. That is, cells themselves are individually alive. Keeping cells alive outside their contact with other cells in a body, however, is difficult. Especially in 1951, cells separated from their “home” in a body usually died within a day.

In a surprising result, however, the cells from Henrietta Lacks not only survived but reproduced themselves and flourished. Properly cared for, they seemed to be, frankly, “immortal.” They became the most famous line of continuously growing cells and were named by parts of the donor’s name (Henrietta Lacks), HeLa cells. Those self-copying cells have been subsequently used in experiments published in more than 80,000 scientific papers. Their use continues even today.

Henrietta was neither asked in 1951 nor gave permission for the removal of cells for biopsy. She was certainly not informed when the cells began to grow consistently and as to how unusual this was. Nor was her family informed about the biopsy result and their remarkable qualities.

Researchers, however, quickly saw the opportunities using the cells. Experiments could be designed to challenge or treat the cells in any way; there were always new identical cells being produced. Although Johns Hopkins did not profit financially, the cells were distributed to other researchers, some of whom had clear commercial interests. Since the Lacks family was not familiar with what was occurring with the experiments, there was no consideration of any monetary compensation.

In retrospect, it is difficult to find any major biotechnology or pharmaceutical advance since that time independent of the use of HeLa cells. The list is long: investigations on genetic mapping, the polio vaccine, anti-cancer drugs, AIDS, chemotherapy. It is common to use the cells as recipients of various toxins, drugs, hormones, or viruses; expose HeLa cells (or some subsequently developed cell lines) to some substance and avoid testing it on humans themselves.

The point here is that HeLa cells served as the basis for significant scientific advances; they were also a source of great financial benefit for related industries. However, the Lacks family was in the dark until 1973.

At that time, family members were contacted to get some blood samples to gain more information about the HeLa cell line. With their curiosity aroused, they pursued explanations and uncovered what amounts to great information neglect (if not secrecy) from the medical world. This was followed by a significant amount of openness that led, in turn, to serious guidelines for subsequent researchers. This included informed consent of patients, availability of their own medical records to patients, and better communication with donors and research participants. Clearly, there were also racial overtones to the story.

The medical practices that were acceptable and legal in the 1950s are different than today. Indeed, in 2013 Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health established several levels of protection regarding subsequent scientific uses of HeLa cells. 

There have been lots of lessons learned from Henrietta Lacks.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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