By any scale of human measurement, the name Henrietta Lacks ought to rank right up there with the likes of Madame Curie and Dr. Jonas Salk. Her contributions to the human race far outweigh those of the most celebrated sports hero or entertainment icon. Yet her name was completely forgotten by the few who should have known of her, while she is still unknown to 99.9% of all the rest of us who benefit from her largely-anonymous legacy.
Born in 1920 to a share-cropper family from a dusty Virginia crossroads village that no longer exists known as Clover, her birth name was Loretta Pleasant. No one knows how or when she became “Henrietta”. What is known is that her life on this earth came to a painful end at the age of only 30, cut short as a young mother of five by a particularly virulent - and probably mistreated - case of cervical cancer. She died 60 years ago in the “Colored Ward” of Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Maryland, and was buried in an unmarked grave by loved ones who had never known anything but poverty.
Long before stem cells – or stem cell research – became well-known to the American public and the media world, medical and scientific research had moved from laboratory animal tissue to human tissue as the most desirable medium for lab trials of all kinds. Human tissue samples were routinely captured, cultured and used to test new drugs and treatment systems far and wide. One of the nation’s first true research hospitals, Johns Hopkins was near the forefront in such cutting edge work, and had attracted a technical staff which made the institution a source of tissue supply for labs across the country and throughout the world. It was also a part of the hospital’s charter to offer quality medical care to neighboring indigent populations regardless of race, color or ability to pay. It was not therefore unusual for Henrietta to seek medical help from Johns Hopkins, nor for her doctors to take tissue samples – without family knowledge or permission - from her cancer-infected body; all factors in the story we are about to consider.
Among the challenges and downsides of using human tissue in laboratory research was the fragility and short “shelf life” of the material, whose longevity from petri dish to test tube to microscope was usually very short-lived, quickly reaching a state known as the “Hayflick Limit”. To the amazement of the Johns Hopkins laboratory staff, this was not true of the samples derived from the patient they identified with the abbreviated tag of HeLa or “Hela”, for short.
Henrietta’s tissue not only failed to die off quickly as would have been expected, but to replicate itself continuously in ordinary laboratory conditions.
Ordinary human DNA has 46 chromosomes, but Hela has 82, and has imbedded within it an active copy of its authenticating genetic code making it virtually immortal. Over the years since Henrietta’s death, literally millions of tons of her replicating tissue have traveled around the world, helping to make possible the Salk vaccine which put an end to the polio epidemic, and cures and new treatments for dozens if not hundreds of human illnesses and diseases. Gene mapping and the capability of in vitro fertilization exist today thanks to scientific breakthroughs facilitated by HeLa. Most cancer research going on today owes its very existence, let alone the hope for eventual success, to the tissue of a black woman who died in poverty more than sixty years ago.
While the cognomen HeLa has long been known to medical students and scientists around the world, the lady known to her loved ones as Henrietta Lacks has only recently been revealed thanks to the tireless research of Rebecca Skloot, author of the just-released book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Quite aside from the fascinating twists and turns of a real-life medical drama, what Skloot has tackled is a deep look into the whole wide question of medical ethics, and a searching glimpse into the family who spring from this little-known and unheralded mother of an earlier era. Not content to pursue each and every thread of scientific truth, the author devoted years to searching out and getting to know Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah and other family members in order to tell the very intimate and personal story hidden behind years of a deeply-held family reticence.
Worth Noting: Ms Skloot has established a scholarship fund for the descendants of Henrietta Lack
In what appears to be the only known photo of Henrietta Lacks in existence, the smiling young mother from Clover, Virginia is seen with hands on hips against an unidentified brick wall. She is probably about 25 years old in this time-scarred image.