Illustrious Roanokers: Henrietta Lacks

Perhaps no Roanoke-born individual has touched the lives of so many as an almost unknown young African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks (1920 – 1951)

The story of Henrietta is amazing and mysterious: mysterious because the details of her tragically short life are mostly lost to time, and amazing because of the far-reaching effects her life has had on the course of history and on untold numbers of people.

Few details are known of Henrietta. Born in Roanoke in 1920, her mother died when she was four years old, after which she lived with extended family in rural Clover, VA. Married at twenty-one, her family supported themselves by tobacco farming until she and her husband moved to Baltimore for better employment. It was there that, in 1951, just after giving birth, she was found to have cervical cancer. Only a few months later, at 31 years of age, Henrietta died of the cancer, leaving behind her husband and five young children.

During the course of her treatment at Johns Hopkins hospital, a biopsy of her cancer cells was taken and examined in the hospital lab. There, researchers found something shocking: unlike all previous cells they had worked with, Henrietta’s cells did not die in culture after only a few days. Instead, they multiplied rapidly – doubling in number within 24 hours. This enabled scientists to begin using them for experiments that had previously been impossible. By dividing Henrietta’s cells, scientists were able to start a cell line that could indefinitely sustain itself – a cell line still alive today, known as the HeLa immortal cell line.

The impact of Henrietta’s living cells is hard to grasp. Her cells are today the oldest and most widely used in the medical research community. They were used by Jonas Salk during his polio research, greatly accelerating his development of the polio vaccine. They also became the cells used in the first ever cell mass-production factory at Tuskegee University. Research done with Henrietta’s cells led to many genetic discoveries, including determining the number of human chromosomes and the mapping of the human genome. They have been used for research and advances in the study of cancer, AIDS, HPV, and many other viruses, and have been (and continue to be) the basis for innumerable scientific studies. Henrietta’s cells are still unmatched for their robustness, adaptability, and hardiness.

Yet even in this astounding legacy, there is an undercurrent of sadness. First, for Henrietta herself, whose life was cut short and who died in pain and anonymity. Second, for the impact on her family. Henrietta’s husband and children knew nothing of the spread of her cells throughout the medical world – because they were never told. It was nearly 25 years later that the family discovered that her cells were in such widespread use, having been donated and sold countless times. Through the years, her family have continued to fight battles for their privacy – over medical records and even the DNA mapping of their mother and grandmother. Yet after seventy years, at least one thing has changed: there is finally well-deserved recognition of the debt that we all owe to Henrietta Lacks – wife, mother, and world-changer.   

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Tim Carr

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