1951

Without Consent

Henrietta Lacks’ Immortal Cells

Photograph of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine by Kadir Nelson, 2017

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer by gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, in January 1951. He discovered a large malignant tumor on her cervix and took a sample of the cancer cells without her consent. Jones sent the cells to Dr. George Grey, who discovered that her cells remarkably doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

Unbeknownst to Henrietta Lacks at the time of her death in 1951, doctors used her cells for research that ultimately impacted the study of the human body. The HeLa cells, named for the first two letters of her first and last names, were used to develop the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, and cloning; to study the human genome, immunology, and infectious disease. Mrs. Lacks' samples were even taken to space to determine the effect zero gravity on human cells. Even today, HeLa cells were used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine.

Henrietta Lacks's children were not made aware that their mother’s cells were taken until decades after her death. Her story is one of many examples of the medical malpractice African Americans experience while seeking healthcare. It has raised ethical debates over consent and the role race plays in the care and treatment African Americans receive.