Every human being is unique in a lot of ways. We have different faces, skin color and personalities. But some of us humans are born with extraordinary powers that can either be good or bad for society. Henrietta Lacks was also a unique human being who was born with remarkable features which would go on to save millions of lives in the future.
Back in the 1950s, John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore was considered one of the best medical facilities in the country. Sadly it was also one of the few hospitals at the time where black people could also go for treatment. Henrietta Lacks was black, which is why she decided to visit this hospital for treatment. Her first visit was in the month of February 1951. She showed up at the hospital to seek treatment for unusual bleeding from the uterine area. The bleeding would occur even when she wasn’t menstruating and she also complained about a lump that she felt in her cervix area.
Dr. Howard Jones was the gynecologist who originally examined Henrietta. He immediately ordered a biopsy after discovering the growing lump and after acquiring a tissue sample he sent it for examination at Dr. George Gey’s laboratory. The results confirmed that the growing lump was actually a malignant tumor. Since cancer treatment was quite limited at the time, doctors decided to treat Henrietta by sticking radium capsules around her cervix region.
Dr. George Gey examined Lacks’ tissue sample with intricate details. One thing that shook him about Lacks’ cells was their endurance. And not just endurance but these cells were multiplying in numbers at an alarming rate. Most of the cells that are sent to labs for testing die off quickly within a few hours, but Lacks’ cells had been living and growing for days. This unique quality of Lacks’ cells also meant bad news for her as her cancer cells were also developing at an incredible rate. They were multiplying faster than the radium capsules could kill them off. Sadly after just seven months after her first diagnosis, Henrietta Lacks passed away.
Dr. Gey sent the samples of her cells to all the big medical researchers around the United States. One of the researchers who received this sample was Jonas Salk who used these cells to develop a polio vaccine which would go on to save millions of lives in the future. Dr. Gey named these cells as “HeLa” (which is the combination of the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name) to honor the woman who was the cause of breakthroughs in medical research.
There was a controversy a few years later when Lacks’ family stepped forward to complain that these medical companies might have extracted blood samples of Henrietta without consent. This was because Henrietta kept her treatment secret from her family and they all found out about it after her death.
The family of Henrietta Lacks is finally receiving recognition for her contribution that saved millions of lives. Her story was told in a film produced by HBO in 2017 and it starred Oprah Winfrey. A commissioned portrait of Lacks is also placed at the National Portrait Gallery to honor her.