Henrietta Lacks, 1920-1951

  • Henrietta-Lacks-WWP

Woman Category: HealthWoman Tags: African-American Women and WDC Metro Area Women

  • HerStory

    The owner and source of the immortalized HeLa cells, who contributed immensely to the development of medical science.

    Born to poor African-American farmers of tobacco fields. Her mother died when she was 4 years old, and she was sent to live with her grandfather in a room with her 9-year old cousin, David “Day” Lacks, who later became her husband. By the time she was 14, they had their first child and later moved to Baltimore, MD.
    In 1950, right after she gave birth to her fifth child, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was the only one in the area that was treating black people. Blood samples were taken from her cervix, a healthy one and a cancerous one, without her knowledge (which was not required by the law in 1950). The samples were named ‘HeLa’, as the conventional way, based on the first and last names of the patient. A physician and cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins examined the samples and noticed that the cancerous cells continue multiplying themselves endlessly. This was the first time the medicine field encounter this phenomenon of immortalized cells, a source of cells that never ends.
    Without her family’s knowledge or consent, HeLa cells were used in many types of research, playing a crucial role in key developments, inventions, and patents in the medical field, such as vaccines, gene mapping, drug developments and more.
    Henrietta Lacks died in October 1951, ten months after her diagnosis. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the family cemetery in Lackstown, VA.

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Only in 2013 Lack’s family got fully involved and control over HeLa cells.
    • HeLa cells are still in use in many researches.
    • The book about Lacks’ story, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, was published by the author Rebecca Skloot in 2010, and in 2017 turned into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey.
    • Morehouse School of Medicine has an annual HeLa Women’s Health Conference.
    • Lacks was born as Loretta Pleasant, but it’s unknown how her name change came to be.


  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Books about her


    * Morgan State University in Baltimore granted Lacks a posthumous honorary doctorate in public service.

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Henrietta Lacks: The Immortal Woman

    In 1951, doctors took a tissue sample from a poor, dying black woman that was given to researchers without her knowledge or permission. The HeLa cells, named for the patient’s first and last name, acted differently than other cells in the lab — they were hardier, and replicated at an amazing rate.

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  • Henrietta Lacks' portrait by Kadir Nelson. Presented at the National Portrait Gallery. Photo credit - WWP team.