Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.
Her story penned by Rebecca Skloot into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball in 2010. This New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.
Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Just months before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore sliced pieces of tissue from her cancerous tumour without her consent — in effect, stealing them. It was another instance of decades of medical apartheid and clinical practices that discriminated against blacks. Lacks was not a slave, but parts of her cancerous tumour represent the first human cells ever bought and sold.
Her cells, known among scientists as HeLa, were unusual in that they could rapidly reproduce and stay alive long enough to undergo multiple tests. Lacks’ cells — now worth billions of dollars — live in laboratories across the world. They played an important part in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. The HeLa cell line has been used to develop drugs for treating herpes, leukaemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease. They’ve been influential in the study of cancer, lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases and appendicitis.
Lacks’ story is an example of the often-problematic intersection of ethics, race, and medicine, a link to the dark history of exploitation of, and experimentation on, African-Americans that ranges from the Tuskegee syphilis study to a 19th-century doctor experimenting with gynaecological treatments on slave women without anaesthetics.