Henrietta Lacks and why she should mean something to you

The woman who revolutionised modern medicine

HeLa

Known in the medical field as HeLa.

Known by family and friends as Henrietta Lacks, was born on the 1st of August 1920 in the United States. She was married and had 5 children.

Long story kinda shortish:

Henrietta saw Dr Howard Jones, a gynaecologist, on the 1st of Feb 1951, at Baltimore’s main hospital, John Hopkins (which had a terrible an alleged bad reputation for carrying out terrible experiments on the surrounding black community, without consent, like kids coming up missing kinda thing) because she was spotting and having pains in her stomach.

Most tests revealed that she was generally healthy, apart from when Jones examined her cervix and found a cancer that he had never encountered before, or after. Jones, without consent or even informing Henrietta or her family, sent her tumour tissue to Dr Gey who for two decades, had been trying to grow human cells in test tubes but to no avail. Henrietta’s cells changed this, as they began to multiply at rates never seen before, each cell dividing every 20 hours.

After many painful treatments, including radiotherapy, where tubes were inserted into her and sewn in place, Henrietta sadly died, only 8 months after, on the 4th of October 1951. She was only 31.

While Henrietta lay dead on an operating table, body cut wide open, Dr Gey was on TV, boasting about the new break through he had made, with no mention of Henrietta and the instrumental role she played in his discovery and continued to keep the importance of her cells and the work he was doing on them, a secret from her family, fearing he would be sued, going as far as to rename them HeLa, telling everyone they came from a woman called Helen Lane! (Someone say FRAUD!)

For the first time in history, because of Henrietta’s immortal cell line, testing could be done on human cells, thus meaning they were easy to commercialise. As they were (and still are) highly sought after, selling HeLa brought much fortune. The cells were sold in their billions, for more than $200 a vial but Henrietta was forgotten.

Things that Henrietta’s cells have been used for globally:

Essential in creating the polio vaccine

Cloning

Cosmetic companies bought millions for product trials

IVF

Was sent to space to understand gravity and its effects on the human flesh

The military used her cells to test the effects of radiation

Used in most biomedical research

HBV Vaccine

Gene mapping

11,000 patents

The Lacks family were not compensated, were poor and couldn’t afford healthcare, even though HeLa was so lucrative and it wasn’t until 2010, that a professor of Morehouse School of Medicine, donated a tombstone for her grave, that was previously unmarked.

I know that when I found out about Mrs Lacks a few years ago, the family were being denied any rights or payment from their mothers cells, even after it was found that they too had their cells taken, under the guise, of making sure they didn’t have cancer as their mother did, when really and truly, they could have cared less if they had or not, they were just interested in researching more into Henrietta’s cell lines and as she was dead, her children were the next best thing.

We should not be shocked by this story though, as many advances in medicine have their roots, soaked in the blood of the black community, which could be uncovered if “we” cared to dig deep enough, when “we’re” able to rid “ourselves” of the cognitive dissonance that makes “us” believe lies to feel comfortable, that helps us to sleep better at night on huge puffy pillows of ignorance. This is yet another example, of the lack of value placed on black bodies, where POC are mere dispensable products, exploited by white science.

ps: I couldn’t find out if the family have been given any shares of the wealth amassed by their mothers powerful cells but if anyone knows, please let me know 🙂

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