Henrietta Lacks was a poor tobacco farmer from Virginia who died of aggressive cervical cancer on October 4, 1951. But it wasn’t her life that made medical history. It was after her death.
When she died, doctors harvested her cancer cells at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital without her consent or her family’s knowledge. But this theft was just the beginning. Her cells were the centerpiece of some of the most notable moments in medical history. Why were they so special?
When other cells died in the lab, Lack’s actually doubled. This was unheard of! Her cells, nicknamed “HeLa,” were special. They were used to develop the AIDS treatment, the polio vaccine, treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza and leukemia, and in-vitro fertilization. In other words, her cells are responsible for saving lives! So where’s the problem?
Lack’s story exemplifies the medical community’s exploitation of our people, including the fact that Lack’s family was disregarded in the beginning. This story inspires us to be vigilant in demanding ethical treatment and respect from the medical and scientific community.