How One Woman’s Immortal Cells Have Saved Millions Of Lives

Published June 18, 2018
Updated June 21, 2020
Published June 18, 2018
Updated June 21, 2020

Henrietta Lacks' cells were used to develop the vaccines for everything from polio to HPV.

Henrietta Lacks

Wikimedia CommonsWhen Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment, she unwittingly made a tremendous contribution to science.

Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore has long been considered one of the best hospitals in the country. Dozens of experimental procedures that went on to save countless lives were developed on the hospital’s premises. Back in the 1950s, in the midst of the Jim Crow era, Johns Hopkins offered another important service: it was one of the only places where poor blacks could seek medical care.

In February of 1951, Henrietta Lacks showed up at Johns Hopkins Hospital for an appointment. She reported that she had been bleeding from her uterine area even though she wasn’t menstruating and had noticed something that felt like a lump while she was bathing.

The Original Diagnosis

Hela Cells

Wikimedia CommonsThe HeLa cells up close.

Lacks was a 31-year old black woman originally from Virginia — she and her husband had left behind the tobacco fields where their ancestors had worked for generations to seek employment in Baltimore during the war. The couple had five children together and it was shortly after the birth of their last son, Joe, that Henrietta (or “Hennie” as her family called her) had noticed the irregular bleeding.

Dr. Howard Jones, the gynecologist who examined Lacks, found a peculiar growth on her cervix.

He ordered a biopsy to be carried out and a tissue sample was sent to Dr. George Gey’s laboratory; a few days later the results confirmed that the growth was a malignant tumor. Cancer treatment in the 1950s was vastly different from what it is today: in order to try and destroy the cancerous cells, the doctors simply placed radium capsules around her cervix, which was actually considered the best treatment available at the time.

Although Lacks went to Hopkins regularly for treatment, she kept her diagnosis a secret from her family. As time went on and it became more difficult to conceal her pain, family members would hear her moaning “Oh, Lord, oh, Lord, I can’t get no ease! Jesus, help me, Jesus!”

As Lacks’s condition worsened, Dr. Gey noticed a strange thing while he was studying her tissue sample. The cells in the samples Gey had collected from other patients died off so quickly he was unable to study them; Lacks’s cells, however, were multiplying at an incredible rate. Unfortunately, this abnormality also meant that the cancer cells were multiplying at a rate faster than the radium could kill them. Less than seven months after she had first walked into the hospital, Henrietta Lacks was dead.

Henrietta Lacks Lives On

Henrietta Lacks Portrait

National Portrait Gallery In 2017, a portrait of Henrietta Lacks was installed at the National Portrait Gallery.

As the family Lacks had left behind mourned her, her cells had begun providing remarkable new insights in the medical field.

Doctors dubbed them “HeLa” cells (a combination of the first two letters from Lacks’s first and last names). They were using them not only to study the growth of cancer cells and how to potentially destroy them but also to learn more about the human genome. Dr. Gey sent samples of the constantly-multiplying HeLa cells to researchers all over the United States. One of them, Jonas Salk, used them to create the vaccine for polio.

Despite the fact that Henrietta’s cells were causing medical breakthroughs across the country, the Lacks family remained unaware of her unique contribution to science. It wasn’t until they received a call from researchers in the 1970s, three decades later, asking them to donate blood samples that they finally learned the truth.

Although Lacks’s tissue contributed to many life-saving medical breakthroughs, the way in which is was obtained has been tainted by controversy. Upon learning the truth about the HeLa cells, the Lacks family became concerned the sample had been taken without Henrietta’s permission and were angry that “these other people,” as one cousin stated, “are making billions and billions” while many of the Lacks still couldn’t afford insurance.

Much like cancer treatment, the concept of informed consent was vastly different in the 1950s. At the time Lacks came to Johns Hopkins, cervical cancer was killing 15,000 women every year. Dr. Daniel Ford, current director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, remarked that a during that era, “researchers got a little carried away with science and sometimes forgot the patient.”

It’s unclear if the researchers unwittingly used medical terms the Lacks family didn’t understand, or whether they had masked their true intentions behind incomprehensible jargon. Regardless, the women behind the cells is finally starting to be recognized. In 2017 HBO produced a film starring Oprah Winfrey about Lacks’s remarkable story, as well as commissioned a portrait of Lacks (which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery).

Whether the HeLa cells were obtained by less-than-honest means or not, it cannot be argued that they have helped save countless lives.

After learning about Henrietta Lacks, check out Walter Freeman and the history of the lobotomy. Then, read about the scientists who grew a beating human heart from stem cells.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.