“Immortality is a long shot, I admit. But somebody has to be first.” Bill Cosby
And indeed Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Virginia who died too young, became a first without ever living to know it. When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 John Hopkins Hospital took out a tiny piece of her tissue and sent it to a lab. Before Henrietta Lacks researchers had been unable to replicate and keep alive human cells. Until Henrietta’s cells were sent to them that is. Despite the fact that she died eight months after attempts to treat her cancer, Henrietta’s cells multiplied by the billions. And for decades HELA cells, name after the first two letters in her first and last name, contributed to some of the biggest medical treatment breakthroughs in history. The polio vaccine, cloning and the development of the cancer drug Tamoxfen are just a few. Some medical experts say that it is impossible to over-emphasize the part that HELA cells have played in modern medicine.
Yet Henrietta has been lying in an unmarked grave for decades. Her role in medical research wasn’t revealed to the husband and five children she left behind. Not until the 1970s did the family know, when researchers contacted her husband wanting to take cells samples from members of her family. You see researchers still don’t know why Henrietta’s cells kept on living and multiplying with no other human cells they’d tried would.
Finally her family knows the truth, and a donated gravestone will be placed in the cemetary in Virginia where Henrietta lies next to her mother. The granddaughter of slaves died young, and yet lives on. She was a first and a medical marvel. For decades the world outside of a circle of top medical researchers never even knew her name. Thanks to a recent bestelling book now we all know Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and what she gave the world.