Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine
Immortalized in medicine and canvas
Born into a family of impoverished tobacco farmers, Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951) had an immense global impact on medicine, although her controversial story was ignored, hidden, falsified, and left untold for decades. A surgeon removed a tissue sample from a cancerous tumor in Lacks's cervix without requesting permission or even informing Lacks—a common but not universal practice at the time—and delivered it to the laboratory of Dr. George Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. Lack's cells, which thrived and multiplied in the lab, have been used in research ever since, aiding more than 17,000 patents in treatments for conditions ranging from polio and Parkinson’s disease to AIDS, hemophilia, and infertility. Lacks’s story is part of a centuries-long history of medical experimentation on African Americans, enslaved and free, without their consent or knowledge. Only with the 2010 publication of Rebecca Skloot’s revelatory book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, did Lacks’s story come to widespread public attention.