A Mother and her Two Daughters

05 December 2010

With Much Thanks to the Immortal Henrietta Lacks

This weekend Anna-Lee came home to prepare for finals and to write a term paper for her English class.  The term paper is part of a University of Arkansas campus-wide initiative called The One Book…One Community Project.  It’s a noble effort to unite the UA campus and the local community through a shared learning experience. All incoming freshmen have participated by reading the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and so have numerous book clubs across northwest Arkansas.  In October, Anna-Lee and many others were privileged to visit with and hear a lecture by the author, Rebecca Skloot. 

As Anna-Lee shared with me the story of Henrietta Lacks, I quickly realized this to be a remarkable and true-life story about an African-American woman who died in 1951 at the age of 31, who has helped millions around the world through the study of the cells that killed her.  HeLa cells—an abbreviation of her name, Henrietta Lacks—are cervical cancer cells that were taken from her body and subsequently preserved, grown, and maintained in laboratories across the world. Due to their unique ability to continue replicating – the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture – these remarkable cells have been used for medical breakthroughs and scientific advances all across the world, among them the cure for polio and the development of cancer research and treatments, in addition to other treatments for leukemia, AIDS, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease.  Since they were removed from her body in 1951, scientists have grown more than 20 tons of her cells. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is more than a story of her short life, her cancer and the scientific research and advances made by the HeLa cells.  In addition, the story also has a strong ethical angel to it unraveled by the author.  These unique cells were taken from Henrietta Lack’s body without her consent, and shared the world over without the consent of her family.  As the story continues to unfold we soon realize that millions of people have been helped by scientific discoveries made through HeLa cells; we become enlightened about the billions of dollars made by drug companies and research labs from pharmaceutical developments using her cells.  And all the while, Henrietta Lacks’ children and descendents remain in dire financial straits in their impoverished Baltimore neighborhood.  Until this past year, Henrietta Lacks remained buried in an unmarked grave in her hometown in south central Virginia.  Almost sixty years later, on May 29, she was remembered with a tombstone that her family could never afford, a gift from Morehouse College of Medicine in Atlanta.  The tombstone reads:

Henrietta Lacks, August 01, 1920-October 04, 1951.  
In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. 
Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa).  Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.
Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family 

If you haven’t read this book and you’re looking for something to read, or maybe even buy as a holiday gift, this story is amazing.  It’s an amazing story to learn more about the scientific research engendered by Henrietta’s cells, as well as the difficult ethical controversies they sparked.

Thank you Henrietta for your life-saving contributions to the world of modern medicine.  Count me among the many who will remain forever grateful.  

1 comment:

  1. Please visit and Like the Lacks Family HeLa Foundation on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lacks-Family-HeLa-Foundation/210900152262257?fref=ts

    Thank you.


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