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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Background

Who was Henrietta Lacks and how did she change the course of modern medicine while kick-starting the field of bioethics?

  • Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American tobacco farmer whose cells were removed from her body without her permission in 1951. Known far and wide as “HeLa” cells, they represent one of the most significant tools in medicine’s arsenal. A super hero of sorts, HeLa cells aided in the development of the polio vaccine and have advanced understanding of cancer, cloning, gene mapping, and more.
  • The teaser copy for the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, offers this provocative five-sentence summary of Henrietta Lacks’ astounding experience: “Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than 20 years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.”
  • Lacks’s experience motivated fundamental changes in the specific processes of how clinical trials are run – as well as the field of bioethics (the study of ways in which decisions in medicine and science touch upon our health and lives and upon our society and environment).
  • Taken during a cervical cancer biopsy, Lack’s cells became the first immortal human cell line. (They reproduce infinitely in a lab.) Although other immortal lines have been established, HeLa cells are the gold standard around the world. Counted as a whole, they outweigh 100 Empire State Buildings and could circle the equator three times, according to “Popular Science” Magazine.
  • Prior to the discovery of HeLa cells, scientists spent more time trying to keep cells alive than performing actual research on the cells. An endless supply of HeLa cells freed up time for discovery.
  • Scientists even used the cells to determine the effects of the atomic bomb on human cells and to study the effects of zero gravity on human cells.
  • Named by more than 60 critics as one of the best books of 2010, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is considered one of the finest science books ever written. It won the 2010 “Chicago Tribune” Heartland Prize for Nonfiction. The “Chicago Tribune” raved: “Blows away the notion that science writing must be the literary equivalent to Ambien.” Author Rebecca Skloot spent more than a decade researching and writing her ground-breaking book, which carved out a deep spot on the New York Times best-seller list.
  • The Henrietta Lacks Foundation was established to aid individuals who have made important contributions to scientific research without personally benefiting from those contributions, particularly those used in research without their knowledge or consent.