The world wouldn’t be the same had it not been for Henrietta.
Hardly anyone knew of Henrietta Lacks’ life story prior to 2010.
That year, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was released, and went on to become a New York Times best-seller. The biographical book told the story of a black woman born on a tobacco farm in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920 who revolutionized medical research and saved the lives of millions, without ever knowing it. Now, a new film by the same name starring Oprah Winfrey aims to make her life and impact more widely known.
Who exactly was Henrietta Lacks? And why is she described as the “mother of modern medicine”? Here are five fascinating facts about Lacks to better understand who she was and how she changed the world forever.
1. Henrietta Lacks died from a cancer whose cells also made her immortal.
In 1951, at the age of 31, Lacks visited Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, which served black patients in segregated wards during the Jim Crow era, so doctors could find out what was causing pain in her lower stomach. It turned out there was a cancerous tumor that had grown at a terrifying rate on her cervix.
At the time, cervical cancer was prevalent among women and research samples were taken from those who were diagnosed with it. Richard Telinde, a doctor at Hopkins who led a research study on patients who tested positive, hoped to grow living samples from both normal and infected cells to better understand the cancer. He worked with his colleague Dr. George Gey, the head of tissue culture research at Hopkins, who was relentlessly determined to develop the first line of immortal human cells ― those that could repeatedly replicate themselves outside of the body without ever dying.
Soon after her first trip to the hospital, the excruciating pain Lacks felt began to worsen as her tumor grew, so she checked herself into Hopkins for immediate treatment through surgery. The doctor who performed the surgery then removed two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Lacks’ body ― one from the infected cervix, the other from a healthy part of the organ ― and had them handed off to Gey. He and his staff used Lacks’ samples to successfully grow the first line of immortal cells. Lacks eventually died from the cancer, leaving five young children.
However, her cells lived on ― and soon came to be known as HeLa.
2. Lacks never knew doctors took her cells ― and neither did her family, for decades.
In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot writes that while Lacks gave doctors permission to perform a surgical procedure on her, she “knew nothing about her cells growing in a laboratory.” The hospital had called Lacks’ husband, David, to tell him about her death and ask if they could do an autopsy on her. Her husband initially denied the request, but visited the hospital later that day to see Lacks’ body and eventually agreed to sign off on the autopsy because doctors said they wanted to conduct tests that may help their children, and he believed them.