The Lack of a Legacy: Examining the Henrietta Lacks Story

Photo Courtesy: 14GTR, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Henrietta Lacks was born August 1, 1920 in South Virginia. Her mother died four years later, prompting Henrietta to live with her grandfather, after her father had to divide her and her nine siblings to be raised by relatives.

In April 1941, Lacks married her cousin, David “Day” Lacks, and moved to Maryland for better employment, where Day was a steelworker, and Henrietta, a tobacco farmer. 

Lacks had experienced a difficult time during her fifth pregnancy, claiming she had sensed a “knot” inside of her. Despite alarming symptoms, such as cervical bleeding and a lump-like feeling on her cervix, Lacks had to wait several months postpartum before receiving medical help.

Indeed, it was difficult for Black Americans to receive adequate health care as early as the 1960s, and up until that, hospital care was segregated by race in the United States. John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore was one of the very few hospitals that catered to African Americans in the area.

Johns Hopkins Medicine reports on their website that Hopkins, himself had been described “as an early abolitionist whose parents had freed the family’s enslaved people in the early 1800s,” but census records have revealed that during 1840 and 1850,Hopkins had enslaved people living and working in his home, making him a slaveowner.

Lacks was referred to the gynecologist department at John Hopkins Hospital to undergo radium treatment. A biopsy in 1951 revealed a cervical tumour that had gone undetected by doctors after the birth of her son in September 1950 and  after a follow-up appointment six weeks postpartum. Lacks underwent several radium treatments, during which, tissue samples were taken from the tumor, as well as healthy cervical tissue. 

These samples were preserved for tissue culture research at John Hopkins Hospital, led by culture reserch head Dr. George Gey.. Despite not having Lacks’ consent, collection of such samples were standard protocol. 

Tests showed that Lacks’ malignant cells not only survived in culture, but multiplied at an extraordinary rate. They were extremely beneficial in Dr. Gey’s research, and he declared them the first “immortal” human cells ever grown in culture, and created an immortal cell line utilized, at first, for cancer research. Even after the cancer had taken her life in August 1951, Lacks’ sample cells never died and she never knew that those cells would live on and become a staple in the change of medical history as we know it today. 

The cells, known as HeLa cells (named after her first initials), have played an important role in medical science, such as developing vaccines, including polio and even COVID-19; were used in early space mission experiments; have helped with in vitro fertilization; and are responsible for several discoveries in fields of cancer research, immunology, and infectious diseases.

With all of the scientific contributions made due to HeLa cells, it is not surprising they became a source of profit to various biotechnology companies. One such company would include Thermo Fisher, which provides medical equipment, software, and services to research groups, clinical labs, and educators, among others. 

Lacks’ family never received any compensation or monetary gain from the use of HeLa cells, nor did they grant these companies the right to reveal Lacks’ information to the public, including her cells’ genome. Her genome was removed quickly after a strong response from her loved ones. 

In June 2021, The Baltimore Sun published a piece in which Lacks’ family decided to seek legal action in regaining control over her information and legacy, hiring prominent civil rights attorney, Ben Crump. Crump stated plans to seek compensation from pharmaceutical companies across the nation who had made money from the medical research of her cells.

John Hopkins Medicine offers a dedication page to Henrietta Lacks, entitled Upholding the Highest Ethical Standards on their website, writing that, although the collection and use of the HeLa cells was acceptable and legal in the 1950s, it would not be viable today without the patients’ consent. 

Lawrence Lacks, the eldest son of Henrietta, states he also intends to seek compensation from John Hopkins University, as stated by a 2017 article by The Baltimore Sun. Lacks claims that despite the honoring of Henrietta through their website and exhibitions, and that John Hopkins Medicine never profited off the cells, they did not obtain rights to them, and yet they offered the cells freely for research purposes. 

Privacy laws are important for every citizen of the nation, and especially so when it comes to healthcare and medical rights. Despite improvements over the years, the public should be informed about the history of non-consensual medical experiments done on minorities, especially African Americans. Even before Lacks, slaves were often put through painful experiments, such as shock therapy trials, brain surgery, and rigorous amputations to name a few. 

Medical journals that no longer exist, such as the Baltimore Medical and Surgical Journal and the Western and Southern Medical Recorder, include copious “reports of surgical experiments to treat injuries, birth defects, and tumours, all pioneered on slaves”, as reported by Buzzfeed News in April 2015. A study that examined such experiments during the years 1833 to 1858 indicates that doctors frequently performed these experiments without any type of pain relief or regular use of anesthetics.

About the Author

By Brittania Fusca


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