Badass Women in History: Henrietta Lacks

Ok, folks. Every once in a while I read a story that makes me so irate, I feel like throwing up. This is the case with today’s Badass Woman in History: Mrs. Henrietta Lacks. I remember when I was in college, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the book of the year at the campus library.  I was too busy studying to actually check it out, but now I regret not looking at it sooner.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta was born Loretta Pleasant (no one really knows how her first name changed) in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920, to a family of tobacco farmers. When she was 14, she “had relations” with her cousin David and gave birth to his child, and had his second two years later. They were married in 1941, and later that year the family moved to Maryland so her husband could work in a steel company. She had three more children over the years.


Almost five months after giving birth to her fifth child, she was admitted to John’s Hopkins Medical Center (the only hospital in the area to treat African Americans) with severe vaginal bleeding. Upon examination, the doctor discovered a mass on her cervix and took a biopsy for testing. The test came back and showed that it was a malignant tumor: she had cervical cancer.

She underwent radium treatment (the only treatment at the time) and was told to come back for repeated x-ray treatments. During these treatments, doctors took more biopsies of both healthy and cancerous cells. But they weren’t for testing her condition: they were experimenting on them. She didn’t consent to these procedures, but at the time it wasn’t required.


Her cells were given to cancer researcher George Otto Gey, who observed that her cells were unique: they replicated with remarkable speed and were able to be kept alive long enough for in-depth analysis. The quickness of the replications gave the researcher the idea to continue to create more and more of these cells for experimentation, so they might be used in other scientific research.


In August of 1951, Henrietta Lacks was admitted to the hospital with severe abdominal pain.  She remained there until October, when she finally succumbed to her illness.  Not only was it disgusting that the doctors were removing her cells while she was battling cancer, they continued to do so DURING HER AUTOPSY (which revealed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her body.  This infuriates me. She was a person, not an animal at the butcher shop. She was a daughter, wife, and mother to five children, and she couldn’t even rest in peace after her painful battle with CANCER?


Her cells (dubbed HeLa cells, using the first two letters of her first and last names) were reproduced and cultured, and have been used in biomedical breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine, as well as research into cancer and AIDS.


In the 1970s, her cells contaminated other samples, so her family became bombarded with solicitations for blood samples.  The family was confused, and began asking questions.  They found out that Henrietta’s genetic material was still being used in experiments.


I mentioned before that patient consent was not required at the time.  What disturbs me even more is that as recently as 1990, what the doctors did was not illegal.  The Supreme Court of California ruled that discarded blood or tissue samples are no longer the patient’s property, and as such, the patient has no say in what happens to them.  Can you imagine going in for a routine blood test and knowing that once your DNA is in that vial, it’s the laboratory’s property? I don’t know about you, but I’d feel violated to say the least. Funny thing is, I never thought about what happened to those vials or that urine sample after the label was slapped on and I was sent on my way, until now.


Several papers have been published that have used HeLa cells to experiment on Henrietta’s DNA, and have explored her family genome. This raised privacy concerns among Lacks’ family members who were worried about data being released about themselves or future generations. The National Institute of Health made an agreement with the Lacks family, giving them some control over what happens to familial data collected in any tests using HeLa cells.  In addition, two of her family members will sit on a 6-person committee in charge of regulating access to her DNA and the data compiled during any tests using HeLa cells.


Did this story make you as angry as it made me? I knew the basics of her story: that her cells were used in hundreds of scientific breakthroughs over the years. But I had no idea how they treated this poor woman as if she were nothing more than a lab rat. HBO made a movie about her life, and I’m now dying to see it. I hope they did this poor woman’s memory -and her unwitting contributions- justice. I’ll have to let you know when I get around to seeing it.


Thanks for reading, and until next time!