American Culture and History Lesson: Henrietta Lacks
Image Credit: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

For today’s American Culture and History lesson, we’re going to learn about Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells greatly impacted modern science.

So today, as I mentioned before, we’re going to talk about Henrietta Lacks. Just a few months ago, I decided to read the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. You might not know her name, but I think if you took any classes in biology you probably heard of HeLa and HeLa comes from Henrietta Lacks. The first two letters of her first name and the first two letters of her last name and HeLa cells have impacted science in ways that are kind of unimaginable. We’re going to go through that in a bit.

Who was Henrietta?

Henrietta was an African-American woman who grew up in Virginia and lived a fairly simple life. She worked the tobacco fields while she was growing up and when she got older she raised a family in Clover, Virginia. And life was going fairly well until one day she felt, what she called, a "knot" in her stomach. And a lot of her friends said, oh you’re probably pregnant again. But she said no. So, she decided to go to the hospital.

At the time, in 1951, there was a hospital called Johns Hopkins, which is now actually one of the most famous hospitals in the United States. I think it’s ranked number three. So she ended up at Johns Hopkins Hospital. That’s a hospital that has (or had) a public ward, an area that serves all patients regardless of race or financial situation. And I mention regardless of race or financial situation because up until 1965 Jim Crow laws still existed in the United States and separated the whites from the blacks or the African-Americans. And so she decided to go to Johns Hopkins where the treatment would be free.

When she got there, her doctor, Howard Jones, decided to take a sample, or a biopsy, from her cervix where he saw the little lump, or " the knot" that she was talking about, and gave it to George Gey (ɡaɪ), who was the head of the research lab. And George was one of the scientists, who was obsessed with the idea of immortalizing cells. Right. So up until 1951 human cells would die in petri dishes just after a few days. But George thought it would be really wonderful if cells could reproduce, if they could become immortal…

American Culture and History Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks – Image from The Smithsonian

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