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Biography of Henrietta Lacks

Biography of Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

Biography of Henrietta Lacks

Key Takeaway

Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, unknowingly contributed to some of the most significant scientific advancements in the 20th and 21st centuries through her unique cancer cells, known as HeLa cells. These cells have led to numerous medical breakthroughs, yet her story also raises important ethical issues about consent and recognition in medical research.


  • Birth and Early Life: Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia.
  • Family and Personal Life: Henrietta married David Lacks and had five children.
  • Medical Diagnosis: Diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951.
  • HeLa Cells: Her cells were taken without her consent during treatment and became the first immortal human cell line.
  • Scientific Contributions: HeLa cells have been used in cancer research, polio vaccine development, gene mapping, and more.
  • Ethical Controversies: The use of her cells without consent raised issues about patient rights and medical ethics.
  • Recognition and Legacy: Henrietta Lacks’ contributions have been acknowledged posthumously, leading to discussions about scientific ethics and patient consent.

Early Life and Family

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia. She was one of ten children in a poor African American family. After her mother died in childbirth in 1924, her father moved the family to Clover, Virginia, where Henrietta and her siblings were distributed among relatives. Henrietta was raised by her grandfather in a log cabin that had once been a slave quarters on a plantation.

Henrietta married David “Day” Lacks, her first cousin, in 1941. They had five children: Lawrence, Elsie, David Jr. (Sonny), Deborah, and Zakariyya. The family lived in Turner Station, a small community in Baltimore County, Maryland. Henrietta was known for her vibrant personality, love for dancing, and dedication to her family.

Medical Diagnosis and Treatment

In January 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital in the area that treated Black patients, complaining of a “knot” in her womb. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. During her treatment, without her knowledge or consent, doctors took samples of her cancerous and healthy tissue.

Quote: “Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry” – Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Despite undergoing radium treatment, the standard for cervical cancer at the time, Henrietta’s condition worsened. She died on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. She was buried in an unmarked grave in her family’s cemetery in Clover, Virginia.

Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal HeLa Cells

The cells taken from Henrietta’s tumor were given to Dr. George Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher at Johns Hopkins. To the astonishment of Gey and his team, Henrietta’s cells could not only survive outside the human body but also proliferate indefinitely. These cells were named HeLa, derived from the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name.

Scientific Contributions:

  1. Cancer Research: HeLa cells have been instrumental in cancer research, helping scientists understand the disease and develop treatments.
  2. Polio Vaccine: Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccine, leading to widespread immunization.
  3. Genetic Research: HeLa cells have played a crucial role in gene mapping and studying the effects of radiation and toxic substances.
  4. Virology: The cells have been used to study viruses, including HIV and human papillomavirus (HPV).

Table 1: Key Scientific Contributions of HeLa Cells

Field Contribution
Cancer Research Understanding cancer mechanisms, testing treatments
Vaccine Development Development of the polio vaccine
Genetic Research Gene mapping, understanding genetic diseases
Virology Study of viruses like HIV and HPV

Ethical Controversies

The use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her consent raised significant ethical questions. In the 1950s, there were no regulations requiring informed consent for patients whose tissues were used for research. This lack of consent has sparked a debate about patients’ rights and the ethics of using human tissues in research without permission.

In 1973, the Lacks family learned about HeLa cells for the first time, over 20 years after Henrietta’s death. This revelation caused them emotional distress and raised concerns about privacy and ownership. They had not benefited financially from the commercial use of HeLa cells, which were sold to laboratories worldwide.

Table 2: Ethical Issues in the Use of HeLa Cells

Ethical Issue Description
Informed Consent Lack of consent from Henrietta Lacks and her family
Privacy Unauthorized use of personal medical information
Financial Compensation Lack of financial benefits for the Lacks family
Ownership of Biological Material Who owns tissues once they are removed from the body

Recognition and Legacy

In recent years, efforts have been made to recognize Henrietta Lacks’ contributions and address the ethical issues surrounding the use of her cells. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brought widespread attention to her story. The book highlighted the scientific achievements made possible by HeLa cells and the ethical dilemmas they posed.

Johns Hopkins University, where Henrietta’s cells were first cultured, has since acknowledged her contributions. The Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series and the Henrietta Lacks Foundation were established to honor her legacy and provide financial assistance to her descendants.

In 2013, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reached an agreement with the Lacks family to grant them control over access to the HeLa genome data. This agreement was a step towards ensuring that the family’s privacy and interests were respected.

Henrietta Lacks’ legacy is a reminder of the need for ethical standards in medical research. Her story underscores the importance of informed consent, privacy, and recognition of individuals’ contributions to science. Today, her life and the impact of HeLa cells continue to inspire discussions about the relationship between scientific progress and ethical responsibility.


Henrietta Lacks’ story is a powerful narrative of scientific triumph and ethical challenges. Her immortal cells have transformed medical research, leading to countless breakthroughs. However, her story also highlights the critical need for ethical practices in research, including informed consent and respect for individuals’ rights. As we continue to benefit from the contributions of HeLa cells, it is essential to honor Henrietta Lacks and ensure that her legacy promotes ethical integrity in science.


  1. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishing Group, 2010.
  2. “Henrietta Lacks: The Untold Story.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, link.
  3. “HeLa Cells: A Lasting Contribution to Science.” National Institutes of Health, link.
  4. “Henrietta Lacks Foundation.” Henrietta Lacks Foundation, link.


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