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Celebrating the Life of Henrietta Lacks

Women’s History Month is the time of the year where we celebrate all of the outstanding contributions women have made to society. Some women set out to change history, while others have seemingly stumbled upon greatness. Henrietta Lacks’ story tells a tale of the latter. Lacks was born August 1, 1920 to slave parents Eliza and Johnny Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia. Eliza Pleasant died giving birth to her 10th child in 1924. Following her death, Johnny Pleasant separated his children among family members. Henrietta wound up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, in a log cabin that was once the slave quarters on a plantation owned by her white great grandfather.

As a young girl, Lacks worked on a tobacco farm. When she was 14 she gave birth to her son Lawrence Lacks. A year later, she gave birth to her daughter Elsie Lacks. Both children were fathered by her cousin, David Lacks, and, as a result, Elsie Lacks suffered from developmental disabilities. At age 20, Henrietta got married to David Lacks. The Lacks family moved to Maryland a couple of months after the wedding for better work opportunities. During the last four years of her life, she and David had three more children, David Jr., Deborah and Joseph Lacks.

In the winter of 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins, the only hospital that served black people in their town, to treat what felt like a knot in her stomach. Lacks was pregnant again after just giving birth the previous fall. After she have birth to her last child, she suffered from a severe hemorrhage. Later, Lacks was told that she had malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, but in 1970 it was discovered that she was misdiagnosed and actually had an adenocarcinoma—a common mistake at the time, but still treated the same.

While Lacks was being treated, her doctor took two samples from her cervix without her knowledge or permission. Her doctor, Howard W. Jones, took one sample of healthy tissue and one sample affected by cancer and gave it to another doctor and cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. Lacks’ cancerous cells would go on to be known as HeLa cells, which cannot be killed. Lacks’ cells were the first cells to be observed that could be divided multiple times without dying. Due to the immortal nature of her cells, doctors have been able to create and search for cures for various illnesses and diseases. Three years after Lacks’ death, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells in his research to create a polio vaccine. HeLa cells continue to be mass-produced in order to advance findings in the medical field.

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