In 1951, a 31-year-old mother of five sought medical treatment at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital and was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she would someday become one of the world’s best-known contributors to medical research.
In 1950s Baltimore, Johns Hopkins was among the few hospitals that provided treatment to people of color. Mrs. Lacks was treated for her cancer with the protocol of the time, radiation. Unfortunately, Henrietta succumbed to her cancer, and though her life had tragically ended, her profound impact on the world of medicine was about to begin.
During her treatment, samples of healthy and cancerous cells were cultured from Mrs. Lacks’ cervix to diagnose her illness. This was a standard practice, but unbeknownst to her, those cells were also provided to a medical researcher without her consent. These cells had remarkable properties—the researcher tested new treatments and vaccines on them, fully expecting that some of these experiments would kill the cells. Surprisingly, Henrietta’s cells were nearly indestructible and replicated at an unusually fast rate.
Mrs. Lacks’ cells, dubbed “HeLa” using the first two letters of her first and last names, became world renowned, provided by Johns Hopkins to medical researchers around the world to aid their efforts in curing and preventing disease. HeLa cells helped save many lives thanks to their use in the development of the polio vaccine, in cancer and AIDS research and were used in securing more than 11,000 medical patents. Until the 1970s, the source of these miraculous cells was unknown, and Henrietta’s family was unaware of the profit generated from her unwitting contribution to medical research.
In 1975, Henrietta was revealed as the source of the HeLa cells. Since then, her legacy has been celebrated in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” an award-winning book and movie, and her family has been involved in the effort to eradicate cervical cancer. Though she didn’t know it at the time, Henrietta saved thousands of lives—and her family has helped drive improvements in patient privacy and consent.