Henrietta Lacks, the woman who had immortal cells

If, as some say, the ways of the Lord are inscrutable, those of science are not far behind and, sometimes, they are just as surprising and casual.

Fleming came across penicillin by finding an unexpected mold in a culture, Röntgen discovered X-rays when he saw his hand bones projected onto a wall, Viagra was derived from an experiment on the treatment of angina pectoris, and Columbus was not looking for a new continent but an alternative route to the Indies.

So it is not surprising that the doctor George Otto Gey he had to rub his eyes when he began to study the biopsy that he had performed on a patient shortly before her death from cancer: Those cells were still alive!

Its unfortunate owner was called Henrietta Lacks and had died on October 4, 1951 due to kidney failure caused by a metastasis which, as verified in the autopsy, had spread throughout his body.

She was thirty-one years old and had been battling the disease since it was diagnosed in August of the previous year; all her treatments -radiotherapy, chemotherapy- proved useless, especially considering that her cancer was complicated by a polio and several venereal affections (neurosyphilis and acute gonorrhea), the latter probably decisive for the development of cervical carcinoma.

Dr. Gey picked up a tumor sample because, just as the gynecologist had warned her, it was different from others she had seen. And indeed, he was surprised when he found that the cell culture was still active, with the cells dividing in their natural multiplication process.

All a scientific discovery conveniently baptized with the name of Hela (obvious acronym for Henrietta Lacks), although the inevitable popular nickname was cell immortals.

The importance lay in the fact that the cancer cells demonstrated the ability to be cultivated in the laboratory, in the field of medical research, in a unlimited.

In fact, Gey donated the crop and all the material developed in his work to science, which in the end has been essential to achieve the polio vaccineas well as to advance in the knowledge of other diseases like cancer or AIDS, for example, or perfecting gene therapies against leukemia and Parkinson’s.

However, it was not an easy road. Gray had to face a legal process for having taken the samples without permission Neither the patient nor her family.

At that time it was not formally required but even so the case ended up in the courts, which finally ruled confirming the use of then: the material obtained by a doctor during the care of his patients was the property of said professional or of the institution where he worked; consequently, the organic tissues of a person cease to belong to the person in these circumstances.

The controversy originated when Henrietta’s relatives learned in the mid-seventies, twenty years after her death, of the prominence achieved by their unfortunate daughter. The reason? Double. They had been called to request blood samples, first to get more cells immortals (because some of the HeLa had been contaminated by other crops); and second, for analyze your DNA and try to better understand Henrietta’s uniqueness.

It turned out that no one else owned it, thus being a unique case in the world. Something especially curious because from that handful of original cells they have grown close to fifty tonswhich obviously means a lot more than what the donor herself had in her body.

First image taken of HeLa cells in 1951/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

And to all this, who was Henrietta Lacks? Well, someone who would never cross her mind that one day her name would be part of the annals of medicine. A normal person, not especially bright, illiterate and a tobacco grower.

Born on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, a place of mysterious historical reverberations (see In Search of the Lost Roanoke Colony) and probably not the most idyllic for someone of black race in those years.

The daughter of a simple railway employee named John Randall Pleasant and his wife Eliza, it seems that Henrietta’s real name was lorettaignoring when and why it was changed.

We do know that she adopted her last name from her husband David, who was also her cousin; In fact, they lived together from childhood at her grandparents’ house with all her siblings after Eliza’s death, which occurred when she gave birth to the tenth of her family. In fact, Henrietta (or Loretta) had two pre-marital children with David, hence the wedding, held in April 1941.

They then settled in Maryland and had three more children. The latter was born at John Hopkins Hospital just four and a half months before her mother was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her.

The terrifying overtones of this story are sharpened by the fact that one of Henrietta’s daughters, elsiesuffered abuse in the Negro Insane, an institution later renamed Crownsville Hospital Center, where she had been admitted in 1950 – she was mentally disabled and deaf-mute – and where she died five years later, at the age of sixteen, after being subjected to a trephination without authorization.

Henrietta had gone to John Hopkins Hospital, the only one in the area that accepted black patients, because of a strong stomach ache that it was causing significant bleeding and that, contrary to what those around her believed, it was not another pregnancy but cervical cancer; was specifically diagnosed malignant squamous cell carcinoma in the cervix, although a review of the case in 1970 corrected that diagnosis by changing it to a adenocarcinomausual confusion in those years.

Sign remembering the life of Henrietta/Photo: Emw on Wikimedia Commons

was buried in a unmarked grave in a Halifax cemetery that the descendants of slaveholders donated to the families of their former slaves. The exact location of the tomb is unknown, although it is believed that it is a neighbor of his mother’s and that is why in 2010 a collaborator of Dr. Gray paid for a tombstone with an epitaph that he placed there.

It was one of the many initiatives that were carried out -among them a foundation with her name- to somehow recognize the role of that woman and compensate the discomfort of their relatives for not having been informed for so long.

Although the controversy would not end because in 2013 the complete sequencing of its genomeagain without permission, and before the protests he had to retire shortly.

The truly ironic thing about all this is that what prematurely took Henrietta’s life would also end up being the salvation for thousands of lives.


The Henrietta Lacks Foundation / The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Sklot) / A Conspiracy of Cells. One Woman’s Immortal Legacy-And the Medical Scandal it Caused (Michael Gold)/Smithsonian