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Henrietta Lacks

Black History Month Profile

February 23, 2019

United States Public Domain

Henrietta Lacks is known as the “Immortal Women” and the source of the HeLa cells.

Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia on August 1, 1920. She changed her name to Henrietta. When her mother had died when Henrietta was four, she and her nine siblings were split up upon her father’s family in Clover, Virginia, she was sent to live with her grandfather and her cousin, David Lacks. At the age of 14, David and Henrietta welcomed their son, then a daughter in 1939. In the Year of 1942, they were married. After being married, David and Henrietta uprooted their family in Maryland, suggested to them by their cousin Fred Garrett, later having three more children. The Lacks had placed their daughter Elise who had developmental disabilities in the Hospital for the Negro Insane which was later named Crownsville Hospital Center and she later died at the age of 15.

Around that time, Henrietta had her last child, which cause a severe hemorrhage. Lacks went to her primary doctor and was tested for syphilis, which came back negative, so she when to Johns Hopkins, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts and X-ray treatments. Throughout her treatments, two samples: one healthy tissue and the other cancerous, without her knowledge, were sent to physician Greg Otto. Otto noted something unusual about her cells, they were more durable than other cells. As Otta was completing his research, Lacks died on October 4, 195 when the tumor spread through her body.

Otto discovered the HeLa line via the cells taken her body. He then multiplied the line and ever since then it has helped revolutionize medical research. HeLa cells were used in many things such as Polio during 1955 when word got out about HeLa cells, scientist began cloning the cells and using it to study diseases and human sensitivity to new products. As time went on, Henrietta’s cells have been used in every medical process from medicines to vaccines.

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