Henrietta Lacks


Name: Henrietta Lacks

Life: 01/08/1920 – 04/10/1951 (31 Years)

Born: Roanoke, Virginia, United States

Died: Baltimore, Maryland, United States

Occupation: Tobacco Farmer


Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was a black Tobacco farmer living on the East Coast of the United States of America during the 20th century. She was born Loretta Pleasant, however it is not known how she became Henrietta. She took her husband’s last name – Lacks – when they married.

She would go on to have 5 children before dying in 1951 of cervical cancer. Commonly used HeLa cells originated from this cancer. [5]


Born into extreme poverty Henrietta grew up with her parents and eight older siblings in a small shack on a dead end road. In 1924 her mother died birthing her 10th child, Henrietta’s younger sibling. [1][2]

After her mother’s death her father moved her and her siblings to Clover Virginia, as he could not take care of 10 children alone. They were split up among various family members, causing Henrietta to end up living with her grandfather in a two story long slave quarters turned cabin, previously owned by her white great grandfather and great uncle. She would share her room with her first cousin – David “Day” Lacks. They married in 1941 and together they had 5 children. The family then moved to Tuner Station, so Day could work at a Steel company whilst Henrietta continued to work on the family Tobacco farm.

Going to hospital complaining of abdominal pain after her fifth and final child, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Without her consent her cancer cells were harvested by Dr. George Otto Gey. She would eventually die of the cancer a few months later and an autopsy would reveal that it had metastasised throughout her body. [3]


What made her cells special?

Nicknamed the “immortal” cell line her cancer cells were particularly special. Unlike average cancer cells – that no matter how well preserved would die after a couple of divisions – Henrietta’s had the following properties:

  • Could double in size every 24 hours.
  • Extremely durable.
  • Can be frozen for decades without significant damage. [4]
  • Can divide seemingly infinitely without dying. [3]

The last property is crucial as the cells can be used for many experiments. Gey would go on to share these cells freely among his colleagues, and this repeated until the HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) cell line would become one of the most important tools in medicine, with the total amount grown estimated to be over 50 million metric tonnes (equivalent to the weight of approximately 684  Eiffel Towers or 100 Burj Khalifa’s). [3]


Why is this a problem?

There are several issues regarding how the cells were obtained and are used.

  1. Treatment of the patient – Henrietta was admitted to the coloured ward of John Hopkins Hospital in the 1950’s after being turned away once. (That was less than a century ago, people born in the 50’s are still alive today). Instead of receiving the proper care that her white counterparts received, she like many other people of colour, were at best treated as test subjects and at worst not treated at all, contributing to her death at a very young age.[3]
  2. Lack of payment – Henrietta’s cells were the first human cells ever bought or sold, launching a multi-billion dollar industry. To this day her family have not received any compensation – as taking cells from a human body and using them in research without consent is illegal. Due to not having any generational wealth (being the descendant of slaves like many African Americans) they struggle to afford the health care that would not exist without the use of HeLa cells. [4]
  3. Lack of recognition – As previously stated Henrietta’s family have not received any payment, and like many others did not even know her cells were being used. Rebecca Skloot (Author of the book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) was the first to tell them. This has prevented the Lacks family from seeking compensation for the way she was treated, additionally many scientists across the globe use her cells regularly yet do not know the unethical story behind their origin. This perpetuates the harmful stereotype in STEM that if the results are good (i.e a cure for an illness etc…) then the means used to achieve it does not matter.

There is a common misconception in STEM that addressing personal feelings and experiences hinders science and that you should remove emotive language from your work. This leads to many issues within the STEM subjects – mostly that the unethical and inhumane practices go unnoticed by the culprits and eventually become virtually forgotten by everyone else. HeLa cells are but one example of this, where a black woman has saved countless lives at the expense of her own and her living, breathing family cannot afford healthcare, but the racists who used her body as a commodity continue to prosper.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were vital to the development of the Polio vaccine, Cloning, Gene Mapping, In Vitro Fertilization, and more [3]. Her cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown.

Finally Henrietta Lacks has both directly and indirectly enriched the lives of countless who will never know her name. It is because of this that we must learn about the immoral practices that lead to what we have today and shame racists like Dr. Gey who get painted as pioneers and innovators for decades. We need to move towards a future where science is driven by equality, diversity and a love for the field.


References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️ = Written 

🎧 = Audio

💻 = Video

[1]🗒️ – Wikipedia –https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Lacks#Death_and_burial

[2]🗒️ – First Year Book Programme, University of Maryland – http://fyb.umd.edu/2011/henrietta-lacks.html

[3]🗒️ – National Centre for Biotechnology Information – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3516052/

[4]🗒️ – Smithsonian Magazine article – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/henrietta-lacks-immortal-cells-6421299/

[5]🗒️ – Official Lacks Family website – http://www.lacksfamily.net/henrietta.php

More information can be found in the following links. This includes the book by Rebecca Skloot (highly recommend), Rebecca Skloot’s and the Lacks Family’s Twitter, The Lacks Family website (which contains a short, excellent summary of Henrietta Lacks’ life) and the official website for The Henrietta Lacks Foundation – which works to help individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.






For more information on POC scientists please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Karel Green. For more information see the about page or follow her on twitter @thisismeonline.



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