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Henrietta Lacks (1920-51)

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman living in a segregated community in Baltimore. She died aged only 31, but achieved immortality in death. Cells from her cancerous tumour were cultured to form the first immortal cell line, which is still used in medical research worldwide. Her legacy raises questions about informed consent, racism, the ownership of human tissues and the ethics of using them for research.

Lacks was admitted to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital shortly after the birth of her fifth child. She was later diagnosed with cervical cancer. A tumour was removed during her unsuccessful treatment and its cells were cultivated in the laboratory. Researchers observed that these cells multiplied as no others had done before: they doubled their numbers each day. They were also far more robust than previous human cell cultures. On 4 October 1951, Johns Hopkins proclaimed a new dawn of medical research. ’HeLa cells’ were seen as a breakthrough in the fight against cancer. Lacks died the same day.

HeLa cells were distributed to other laboratories. They in turn cultured supplies before distributing them. Lacks’s tumour cells have been constantly used since her death. Areas of medical research benefiting include polio, cancer, AIDS and gene mapping. HeLa proved so strong they even infiltrated other cell cultures.

HeLa became a multi-million-dollar commodity. However, Lacks’s surviving family only became aware of her amazing legacy by chance in the 1970s. Her contribution recently received belated recognition, and there is now an annual commemoration called ‘Henrietta Lacks Day’. Her cancer cells live on, but Lacks has lain for nearly 60 years in an unmarked grave.

Related Themes and Topics



R Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010)

H Landecker, Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies (Harvard University Press, 2007)





An infectious disease affecting the central nervous system. Affected individuals can exhibit a range of symptoms if the polio virus enters the blood stream.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease caused by infections resulting from a weakened immune system due to the HIV virus. It leads to failure of the immune system and is usually fatal. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids.


Part of the nucleus of a cell that determines how our bodies function. Genes are passed from parents to children.