Henrietta Lacks - Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Oprah Winfrey stars in and just finished production of HBO Films’ "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks".
Henrietta Lacks' Contribution to Science History
This little-known bit of history will take the reader aback, because it is scarcely talked or written about, but is one of the greatest scientific contributions in medical history. In a chain of events that would forever change medical history, a preventative cure for an ominous debilitating disease, that affected millions.
On February 1, 1951, days after a march by 10,000 people in New York for a cure for polio, Mrs. Lacks sought out medical attention due to a vaginal discharge at John Hopkins Hospital. Unfortunately, the news was not good, and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. After treatment, she died on October 4, 1951.
Henrietta Lacks Legacy
Unbeknownst to Mrs. Lacks, a tobacco farmer, from Halifax County Virginia, cells were removed from her body prior to her death without disclosure, her knowledge or consent, during a routine biopsy. The scientist found that Lacks' cells did something they had never seen before, they could be kept alive outside the body and grow!
Henrietta's cells were given the name HeLa using the first two letters of her first and last name. In 1954, three years after Mrs. Lacks demise the HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio.
Afterward, demand for the HeLa cells grew and was put into mass production. Traveled the world and even into space, so basically she's the first black and woman to make the trip. This was done in an unmanned satellite to see whether human tissues could survive zero gravity.
Over a decade has passed and Henrietta Lacks cells are still alive, and still being used in research for cancer, HIV, Parkinson's Disease, mumps, measles, ebola, gene mapping and the effects of radiation and toxic substances on humans. The HeLa cells assisted chemist in research to test human sensitivity to tape, cosmetics, glue and many other products.
- 1996 Moorhouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia recognized the Lacks family; Henrietta's husband, and four children, for her continuing contribution to science.
- 1997 A documentary aired spotlighting Mrs. Lacks contribution to science entitled "Modern Times: The way of All Flesh", which won the Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco InternatioInal Film Festival, in 1998.
- Since the 1950s numerous articles, in newspapers, magazines, and scientific journals have been published. Along with books and academic publications.
- The Lacks family has been honored at the Smithsonian Institute.
- 2001 the National Foundation for Cancer Research announced a press release honoring "the late Henrietta Lacks for the contributions made to cancer research and modern medicine" on September 14 (the date was changed due to the horrific events of 9/11).
Henrietta Lacks passed away at age 31. A descendant of slaves who worked the tobacco fields of Virgina. Daughter of a railroad brakeman and one of ten children. Despite the inconsideration, blatant lack of disclosure regarding the harvesting of her cells and lack of patient-doctor confidentiality, no one could have known that the body of a thirty-one-year-old black woman would hold the key to preventing the spread of polio and possible cures for those of us in the future?
This tobacco farming black, wife, and mother, in death, saved the lives and limbs of so many people for over a half a century. My personal thanks to Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and her family for her distinguished contribution to mankind.
I wrote this article in 2013 for Black History month and I am so pleased that Oprah Winfrey has finished production of Ms. Lacks biography. It is a fact-based story that has been hidden, like so many others, in an effort to minimize the contributions Blacks have made in the building of this nation.