Poor and dying, she became the mother of modern medicine.
September 20, 2015
HENRIETTA LACKS didn’t have much of a past and absolutely no future at all.
She was poor.
Her family had been tobacco farmers.
Her husband worked in a steel mill.
He made eighty cents an hour.
She had five children.
She was black.
She was dying.
She had no hope.
She saved so much of the world.
At least she saved a lot of it.
And she never knew.
Hardly anyone else does either.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Henrietta Lacks was suffering from cancer, but the cells removed from her cervix during a biopsy changed the face and the future of medicine. The cells had a life of their own. Drop one of them in a petri dish, and it would start dividing and multiplying as though it had a life of its own.
Doctors were astonished. They could not believe what they were seeing.
Human cells had never done that before.
The Hela Cells – so named for the first two letters in Henrietta’s first and last names – were immediately sent to Johns Hopkins University, and, it’s noted, they became, in some circles, an instant biological celebrity.
Research labs all over the world wanted them.
Research labs all over the world had found a magic potion that had never existed before.
Research labs around the globe would find miracle cures.
And Henrietta Lacks?
She was thirty-one.
She was raising her five children.
She was struggling on the borderline of poverty.
She was dying.
She was scarred badly from her radiation treatments.
She was treated in the colored ward.
And no one bothered to mention to her that her cancer cells were running rampant in petri dishes around he world. No one ever asked her permission to culture the cells.
The hospital simply took them.
Hela cells were famous.
Henrietta was an unknown.
And she remained that way for so long.
A lab assistant glanced over,saw Henrietta’s painted red toenails during her autopsy and later said: “O, jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting her toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
Henrietta Lacks died in anonymity.
Her cells were going viral.
They became the godmother of virology and then the breeding ground for biotech. The New York Times said that the Hela cells have benefitted anyone who has ever taken a pill stronger than an aspirin. Scientists have grown some fifty million metric tons of her cells, and you can get a handful for yourself simply by calling an 800 number.
Hela has helped build thousands of careers. Hela has been the foundation for more than sixty thousand scientific studies, with more being published every day.
It’s all about Hela.
It’s all about Hela.
Want to uncover the root of any medical ailment?
Buy yourself a petri dish full of Hela. Your cup will be running over by the time you get to the lab.
It’s important to give Johns Hopkins some credit. The hospital never sold any of the cells. Hela was important to medicine and medical research, so Johns Hopkins gave the cells to whoever wanted them.
The men and women in the white coats became famous.
The men and women in the gray flannel suits became rich.
Their companies earned billions off of the Hela cells.
But Henrietta Lacks?
She died broke.
Her family remained broke.
Not too many years ago, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah was quoted in the Times as saying: “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! But I won’t lie. I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother’s cells probably helped make.”
When she was finally allowed to visit a research lab at Johns Hopkins, Deborah was given frozen test tubes, and she warmed them in her hands, watching under a microscope as the cells began to move and slowly divide again and again and again.
Deborah pressed the vial to her lips and spoke to the living Hela cells as though she were speaking to her mother.
“You’re famous,” she whispered. “Just nobody knows it.”