Henrietta Lacks

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Date: 2023
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,240 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1320L

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About this Person
Born: August 01, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, United States
Died: October 04, 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Tobacco farmer
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Henrietta Lacks (1920‐1951) was the unwitting creator of the world’s first “immortal” cell line, HeLa. Developed from a handful of cells culled from Lacks’s cervical cancer tumor, the HeLa cell line has been used to research a number of important 20th and 21st century medical advances, including the polio vaccine and genetic disorder testing. Despite the widespread use of Lacks’s cells, she went unrecognized and even misidentified for many years due to the medical practices of the era. In the 21st century, increased popular attention has been paid to Lacks thanks to a 2010 New York Times best‐selling book and a 2017 film about her life and legacy that was produced by Oprah Winfrey. In 2023, Lacks' family reached a settlement with a biotech company that had profited from her cell line.

Born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, Lacks grew up poor on a former tobacco plantation once farmed by her enslaved ancestors. Her father, Johnny Pleasant, sent his children to live with relatives after Lacks’s mother, Eliza Lacks Pleasant, died in childbirth in 1924. The young Henrietta—the reason for her name change is not recorded—went to live with her grandfather in a rural community known as Lacks Town after the original plantation‐owning Lacks family near Clover, Virginia. As a girl, Lacks helped work on the farm and attended school through the sixth grade. From a young age, Lacks was known as a pretty girl, and she had at least one other dedicated suitor before deciding in 1941 to marry her cousin and childhood companion David Day Lacks, with whom she already had two children, Lawrence and the mentally disabled Lucile Elise.

A few months after the wedding, a visiting family member described the job opportunities afforded Black Americans by the steel industry in Baltimore. Lacks and her family left Virginia for Maryland, where David Day Lacks hoped to find work in the booming industry. Although he succeeded, drawing a better income than possible from working on the tobacco farm, life for the family was still difficult. Lacks did not work in Baltimore, but instead spent her time caring for her husband and children and socializing with friends. “Hennie made life come alive—bein with her like bein with fun,” commented a cousin of Lacks to Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. “Hennie just love peoples. She was a person that could really make the good things come out of you.” By the end of the 1940s, Lacks had given birth to two additional children, David in 1947 and Deborah in 1949. The final Lacks child, Joseph, followed in 1950.

Developed Cervical Cancer

Joseph Lacks’s birth preceded his mother’s untimely death by scant months. Shortly after the birth of Deborah, Lacks had begun to feel pains in her womb. She initially attributed this to her recent childbirth or a sexually transmitted disease, and she did not visit a doctor. In early 1951, however, Lacks believed that she had found a hard lump inside her body and decided it was time to seek medical attention. She visited Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital, which offered free medical care to impoverished people, including Black Americans, in the region. The gynecologist who treated her, Dr. Howard Jones, discovered that Lacks’s belief was correct; upon examination, he found a shiny purple cancerous tumor on her cervix. “I was extremely impressed,” he recalled in an Independent article by Glenda Cooper. “I can see that lesion today because it was not like an ordinary cancer. This was different…I’d never seen anything look like it.”

Indeed, Lacks’s cancer proved an unusually fast‐growing and virulent one. Jones noted that doctors had not seen the tumor in the course of Lacks’s birth of Joseph just four months earlier, yet it had attained an easily visible size by the time of his examination. Soon after her initial visit, Lacks returned to Johns Hopkins for a surgical procedure in which doctors inserted a tube of radium into her cervix to kill the affected cells, a standard treatment at the hospital at the time. During the course of the procedure, the surgeon also scraped off two small pieces of her cervix, one from the tumor and one from the unaffected area surrounding it. This quick sampling—another standard practice for cervical cancer patients at Hopkins—proved one of the most important events in medical history. In the era before informed consent, however, doctors neglected to inform Lacks of her cells’ collection.

Lacks soon recovered from her first radium treatment and returned home to her normal life. More radiation treatments followed, and it soon appeared as though they had destroyed the tumor. By spring, Lacks had begun feeling increasingly unwell; she expressed concerns to her doctor, but he found no evidence of a return of the tumor. During the summer, however, a Hopkins doctor discovered a new tumor on her pelvic wall. Her radiation treatments were increased, although doctors did not believe she would survive for much longer. In August of 1951, she checked into the hospital, where she remained for the last several weeks of her life. The tumors spread quickly, metastasizing throughout Lacks’s body and causing her increasing amounts of pain. She died as a result of the cancer on October 4, 1951, and was buried days later on the Lacks family plot in Virginia.

Cells Had Life After Lacks’s Death

Unusually, the story of the life of Lacks does not end with her death. Her continuing cell line has grown so significantly that all of its cells combined outweigh the Empire State Building one hundred times over and could encircle the globe more than three times. Because of the ability of the HeLa cells to reproduce indefinitely and immensely, the cell line has been dubbed “immortal.” Although other immortal cell lines have been produced, the HeLa cell line was the first and remains the most widespread in medical research. Their longevity is due to the presence of an enzyme, telomerase, which allows cancerous cells—unlike healthy cells—to repair themselves indefinitely.

The cells initially collected from Lacks’s tumor were given to Johns Hopkins doctor George Gey, who was working to develop a method to grow human cells that could be used for research in cancer and other diseases. He, his wife, and his assistant, Mary Kubicek, had thus far been unsuccessful in their efforts to grow human cells outside of the body in a mixture of chicken plasma and other substances. Kubicek processed Lacks’s samples in the routine manner, transferring them to test tubes containing the growing medium and labeling them “HeLa” from the first two letters of the donor’s first and last names. Although the cells from the healthy portion of Lacks’s cervix soon died—as had all of their predecessors—the cancerous cells unexpectedly survived. Just days after their collection, the cells began dividing on their own. With the HeLa cells proving scientifically successful, Kubicek collected more from Lacks’s body during the autopsy following her death, again without the knowledge of the Lacks family. “She was very, very thin and yet one thing I did notice was she had chipped red nail polish on her toenails,” Kubicek recalled to Cooper in the same Independent article. “I thought, ’This was a live women not just a body.’”

Medical scientists began experimenting with the HeLa cells in various ways. One of the first significant advances in which the cell line played a part was the testing of the polio vaccine in 1954. Jonas Salk had formulated a vaccine against the then‐widespread polio virus in 1952, but he was unable to make it available to at‐risk children until the vaccine had been thoroughly tested for safety and efficacy. Great quantities of human cells had been unavailable for testing during much of the vaccine’s development process, and the use of HeLa cells allowed researchers to test the vaccine on human, rather than monkey, cells that had been infected with the polio virus.

In 1960 HeLa cells were sent into space to measure the effects of zero gravity on the human body. For much of the 1960s, medical researchers used the cells to attempt to develop a vaccine against cancer, believing that disease to be virally formed. By the late 1960s, progress appeared to be taking place; but in 1967, a scientist noticed that all the cell lines being used to measure the vaccine’s efficacy contained an enzyme found only in black people, despite some of the cells having been collected from white donors. This led to the realization that HeLa cells were so strong that they could simply take over another cell sample by coming into even casual contact with it. Cells clinging to the hands and sleeves of researchers were transferred from sample to sample, and what were thought to be different cell lines all, in fact, were HeLa cells. The cell line was so widespread that even samples cultivated from Soviet donors in the USSR turned out to have been subsumed by HeLa cells.

The extensive use of HeLa cells sometimes led to unexpected results. During the 1960s, a researcher accidentally added a chemical to a HeLa cell sample that caused its chromosomes to spread. Scientists then used this technique to study human genetics, determining the number of human chromosomes and launching a new era of genetic disease testing and research.

A Somewhat Troubled Legacy

Within several weeks of their initial cell collection, Gey’s staff had begun providing HeLa cells to colleagues who requested them for their own cancer research. In time, a massive biomedical industry dedicated to the culture and sale of the HeLa cells arose. Companies made millions of dollars from the HeLa cell line, but no benefit came to her survivors. Thus, much of the outcry that arose about the use of Lacks’s cells decades after their initial collection stemmed from both her own and her family’s complete ignorance that samples had been taken from her body before and after her death, and that those samples had launched a multi‐million dollar medical industry. “When they learned that their mother’s cells had saved lives, the family felt proud. But they also felt confused, a bit frightened, used and abused,” wrote Denise Grady in the New York Times. “It had never occurred to anyone to ask permission to take their mother’s tissue, tell them that her cells had changed scientific history or even to say thank you. And certainly no one had ever suggested that they deserved a share of the profits.” More than 50 years after Lacks’s death, her children remained impoverished and without health insurance, unable to practically benefit from the advances that their mother’s cells had helped generate.

Somewhat embittered by the events surrounding the collection and use of the HeLa cell line, Lacks family members remained largely unwilling to discuss their mother. At the same time, scientists using the cell line were often ignorant of its genesis or equally unwilling to discuss the donor. As a result, for decades the identity of the original donor was misidentified as “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larsen,” stemming from an uncorrected error in a 1954 magazine article on the development of human cell culturing. Not until the 1970s was Lacks identified as the cells’ contributor.

Although her contributions long went unrecognized, Lacks’s immense legacy is undeniable. Her unintentional cell donation gave rise to a myriad of medical advances that have supported the immense innovation of biomedical research and technology during the latter twentieth and twenty‐first centuries. HeLa cells remain in use in universities and medical labs around the world, with researchers continuing to build on their findings to fight cancer and increase knowledge of other human systems. These widespread advances have helped win Lacks posthumous recognition as one of the most important women in medical history.

In 2013 the Lacks family was finally granted some say into how Henrietta’s cells were to be used. The family and the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) agreed that any research facility that receives NIH funds must first get the permission of the Lacks family before it can access the HeLa cells. In 2017, media and entertainment giant Oprah Winfrey produced a film about Lacks based on Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The film of the same name aired on the cable network HBO in April of 2017. It starred Renee Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta Lacks and Winfrey as her daughter, Deborah. The film was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for outstanding television movie.

In May of 2018, a painting of Lacks was unveiled at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The portrait features a smiling Henrietta who is wearing a red dress with two missing buttons to symbolize the cells that were removed from her body. The background of the painting contains a geometric pattern known as the “Flower of Life,” which is meant to represent immortality and the complex structure of biological cells.

Three years later, the Lacks family filed a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific and accused the company of selling the HeLa cell line for a significant profit and trying to gain intellectual property rights on any treatments derived from research on the line. The family claimed Thermo Fisher Scientific did this without asking their permission and without any compensation. In August of 2023, the family and the biotech company reached a settlement on the matter. The amount of the settlement was undisclosed.


American cell donor Henrietta Lacks provided the cell sample that created the world’s first “immortal” cell line, called the HeLa cell line.



Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Crown, 2010.


Atlantic, February 3, 2010.

Independent (London, England), March 14, 1997.

New York Times, February 2, 2010.

Popular Science, February 2010.


“Family of Henrietta Lacks Settles With Biotech Company That Used Her Cells,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/01/science/henrietta-lacks-cells-lawsuit-settlement.html (August 24, 2023).

“Henrietta Lacks’ Lasting Impact Detailed In New Portrait,” NPR, https://www.npr.org/2018/05/15/611389741/henrietta-lacks-lasting-impact-detailed-in-new-portrait (December 23, 2019).

“Henrietta Lacks’ Family Finally Gets Say in Genetic Destiny. Can We Control Our Own?,” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/07/health/henrietta-lacks-genetic-destiny/index.html (January 4, 2019).

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5686132/ (January 4, 2019).

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1631009594