Throughout Women's History Month, we at LILAS Wellness want to be intentional in honoring the women who have shaped our understanding of health and wellness as we know them today. Because the medical field at-large is still tainted with gendered disparities and biases, we all need to do the work of uplifting women’s contributions to health development in the past, present, and future. In grappling with the history especially, we have to acknowledge how many medical advancements were made by exploiting womxn as patients. In 1951, a young Black woman named Henrietta Lacks made one of the most significant contributions to cellular research in modern history… without her consent.
Henrietta Lacks first went to the then-segregated Johns Hopkins Hospital to receive treatment for vaginal bleeding and for what she described as a “knot on her womb.” This knot turned out to be a quarter-sized malignant tumor on her cervix. While Henrietta Lacks was receiving radium treatment for the cancer, a sample of the tumor tissue cells acquired from a biopsy were sent to renowned cancer and virus researcher Dr. George Gey. As he observed Henrietta Lacks’ cell sample, he noticed that the cells didn’t die as most do once they are outside the body. Instead, the amount of cells in the sample doubled every 20-24 hours. These cells became known as HeLa cells. At first, Dr. George Gey claimed that the cells came from a patient named Helen Lane to hide Henrietta as the true source, stifling Henrietta’s legacy to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, learning this didn’t surprise me at all. Because of their propagation and resilience, HeLa cells became a cell line, a foundational source of cellular material for medical research. For example, in 1953, HeLa cells were used to multiply samples of poliovirus in pursuit of the polio vaccine. In 1964, HeLa cells were sent in the first space capsules to analyze the impact of zero gravity on human cells. Most recently, HeLa cells were used in February 2020 to isolate the Wuhan-strand of the coronavirus. A more consolidated list of the fundamental studies conducted with HeLa cells can be found in this National Institutes of Health timeline. Meanwhile, Henrietta Lacks, the 5-feet-tall kind mother of 5, died at only 31 years old on October 4, 1951.
As we rightfully turn the focus back to Henrietta Lacks herself, we honor the fundamental contributions she has made to health science while acknowledging that her cells were taken without her consent. She shaped women's history, health history, and everyone’s history because she was exploited by medical professionals. Most painfully, many of Henrietta Lacks’ relatives wouldn’t be able to afford the medical treatments that HeLa cells helped to develop because they have not been able to reap benefits from the cells themselves. After writing her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide assistance to individuals and their families who have been directly impacted by exploitative research practices in the medical field. In essence, Henrietta Lacks continues to be immortal not only through the HeLa cells and how they have shaped the trajectory of biomedical research, but also by pointing to the systemic injustices that exist in medicine. May we continue to honor her legacy and be mindful of all the progress that has been made because of her and all the progress we need to strive for because of her.
I started reading this article on Henrietta Lacks with a skeptical eye, and finished the article in tears. Thank you for telling the whole story – including the often overlooked/dismissed financial impact on her family. Thank you Kyra Ann Dawkins!