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4 Things about the Immortal Henrietta Lacks and Why Oprah Cares

As if black girls didn’t need any more magic, here comes the little known story of the immortal black woman who was stolen from in order to save the face of modern medicine. The name we all should be adding to our celebrated lists of Black Americans to revere during Black History Month, is Henrietta Lacks. She is known by scientists as simply HeLa. Lacks was born in the 1920s on a small town tobacco farm in Virginia. She was raised in the age of racial tensions and the Jim Crowe law. Here are four reasons why Lack’s name should be immortalized along with her cells:


In 1951, Henrietta Lacks visited the “colored” ward of the notorious Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland due to an ongoing pain in her lower stomach. It was found that she had a rapid growing tumor due to cervical cancer. Lacks opted to have the tumor removed in what was hoped to be a life-saving surgery. Lacks only consented to her procedure, nothing more.


  1. Unknowingly to Lacks, two small tissue samples were taken from her cervix. One sample was from healthy tissue. The other sample derived from the cancerous cells. The samples were frozen in a lab without the knowledge of neither Lacks nor her family.


In the eclipse of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, patients did not have the protection of informed consent prior to enlisting in medical procedures and experiments.


Henrietta did not survive the cancer and passed away at thirty-one years old, survived by her husband and five young children. Her stolen cells however did not die. Researchers at Johns Hopkins were conducting research in an attempt to discover the first ever immortal human cell lineage. They wanted to create a cell line that would continually multiply without ceasing.


  1. The researchers found just that in Lack’s stolen cervical cells. They dubbed them HeLa and claimed that they derived from a woman named Helen Lane in an attempt to disguise Lack’s true identity to the media as well as her family.


The HeLa cells were sold around the world by 1953 while the Lacks family was left poverty stricken and struggling to find appropriate health care. The cells were sold only to become a priceless commodity in medicine that helped cure millions.


  1. Lack’s cells were instrumental in the creation of the polio vaccine, gene mapping, chromosome abnormalities, and cloning. Researchers also used the HeLa cells to study the human papilloma virus (HPV Virus) which causes the cervical cancer that lead to Lack’s death.


The Lacks family has not received a single penny in compensation for the HeLa cells’ contribution to medicine. The oldest son of Henrietta Lacks is currently leading the legal investigation against Johns Hopkins for the family’s monetary reimbursement. Johns Hopkins, however, claims to have never received funds from the usage and distribution of Henrietta Lack’s stolen cells.


The story of Henrietta Lacks stirs up a wide array of questions regarding ethics and who owns the right to stolen medical property.  Lack’s story first gained fame as a New York Time’s best-selling story by Rebecca Skloot and was named by 60 critics as the best book of 2010.


  1. Although the Lack’s family will potentially never receive proper compensation, they will be recognized across the nation as being a part of an immortal cell line and the newest puzzle piece of forgotten black history.


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has garnered favorable attention by our favorite television talk show host, Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey portrays Deborah in the film, one of Lack’s daughters, who was a cornerstone in aiding Skloot to write the novel that brought her family and mother’s story to the nation’s stage. Be sure you snatch a piece of history and melanin magic. Watch the premier of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Saturday, April 22nd on HBO at 7pm CST.


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