The story of Henrietta Lacks gives pause for reason because certainly, it’s not a wild assumption to think that if the White man had his way, her cells would not have been the chosen study for scientific research and medical advancement. Nor would it have been “the tool” for growing the Polio virus which causes Poliomyelitis and Polio disease. It would not have been her HeLa Immoral Cell Line considered for use for cancer, immunology and infectious disease, unless a few were convinced that Blacks were more than the inferior “3/5th person” they were drummed up to be in 1951.
Undoubtedly this indicates a sense of superiority in genes if not biological makeup. But what is known for sure is that innumerable labs around the globe and people of every stripe have profited physically or financially from her cells.
Hers were the first human cells in history to be successfully cultured and maintained outside the body for extended periods, making them invaluable for medical and biological research. They played a crucial and pivotal role in numerous scientific breakthroughs and developments.
HeLa cells aided in understanding and developing effective vaccines for polio and they have been extensively used in the study of cancer research, to study cancer cells and potential treatment for its growth and metastasis.
They have contributed to the understanding of genetics, cell division, and various cellular processes as well as being instrumental in studying the effects of radiation, toxins, and drugs in humans.
The study of HIV, herpes, tuberculosis, COVID-19 and aiding in the development of treatments for these diseases were also possible through the use of HeLa cells.
Scientific researchers used them in the Human Genome Project and for DNA sequencing and analysis, as well as for use in biotechnology and cloning experiments, contributing to the development of techniques like in vitro fertilization (IVF) and genetic engineering.
But the crux of the matter is that Henrietta Lacks cells, save for the justification of slavery, were taken without consent and numerous companies have been profiting billions up to now.
Lacks was born in August 1920 and was the ninth of ten children. Her mother died in childbirth in 1924.
As appears typical of children of slaves, she became a tobacco farmer and eventually had five children of her own. Her first child was born when she was 14 years old and at age 20 she married David Lacks, her first cousin and the father of her children. She eventually found employment at a steel mill in Baltimore.
Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 and died at the age of 31. John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore has allegedly admitted to saving a sample of her cancer cells but there is no telling of the scope of exploitation or the measure of profit across continents, though John Hopkins claim to not have profited from them.
The family eventually found out about the revolutionary breakthrough found through research of her cells and has already settled with Thermo Fisher Scientific. They are currently pursuing lawsuits with multiple other companies.
A bronze statue in her honor has been erected in the city of Roanoke, Virginia.