HEnrietta LAcks Rebecca Dunlap

To understand what the HeLa cells are and where the immortal cell line originated, you must first learn about an infamous black woman named Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was a 5 foot mother of 5 who just happened to be black. In the 1950s black people weren't considered a vital part to the communities, but without Henrietta our scientific world would not be where they are today.

Whenever Henrietta Lacks was around the age of 30 and had just delivered her 5th child, she felt a "knot" growing inside her which ended up being diagnosed as cervical cancer by the John Hopkins hospital. But the weeks of radiation and treatment could not come close to stopping this terminal cancer from killing Henrietta on October 4, 1951.

A scientist named George Gey and his wife had been working to grow cells outside of the body. Gey and his wife were hired by a scientist, TeLide, at Hopkins to help him link cervical cancer to carcinoma in situ. From the moment this partnership was made every woman who walked in with cervical cancer had a sample taken from her body and given to Gey for research without their knowing.

Gey took Henrietta's cells to the lab just like all the other samples but what made her cells stand out was that they doubled in size overnight. Gey was so excited that the cells were growing that he shipped them out to scientists across the world without notifying the Lacks family.

The HeLa cells have never stopped growing, and have helped make many advances in the scientific world today. They aided in the advances and breakthroughs in studies of herpes, AIDS, cancer, Parkinson's disease, and leukemia just to name a few.


In the midst of the largest polio epidemic in history, trillions of HeLa cells were being shipped around the world to help find a cure. And in 1952 Jonas Salk had found the cure, but he wouldn't give it to children until he knew it was safe and effective. This meant testing it on a large scale which had never been done before. In hopes of finding a cure scientists at Tuskegee produces millions of HeLa cells weekly which helped prove Salk's cure effective and lifesaving.

In 1957 a judge ruled that doctors needed to give "full disclosure of facts necessary to an informed consent" in the case of Martin Salgo. Salgo went under anesthesia for an operation he thought was low risk and routine, yet he woke up paralyzed from the waist down. At the trial informed consent was focused on what doctors were required by law to tell their patients.

In 1966 Stanley Gartler had a theory that disrupted the entire scientific community. He had noticed a rare genetic marker, which is primarily in the black race, present in all his experiments. He was aware that most of the subjects he had used for testing were white, yet he had been using HeLa. This then led him to the conclusion that HeLa cells had contaminated thousands of culture dishes without scientists realizing. HeLa could float through air and survive through ventilation tubes and if one HeLa cell entered a culture, the cells were contaminated. If Gartler was correct, millions of dollars and hours of time had been wasted.

In 1973, while talking with her friend who happened to be a scientist Bobbette found out the truth about her mother. She told her friend that her last name was lacks which brought up HeLa and everything just spilled out. Bobbette immediately grew furious and confused as to how part of her mother was still alive in this man's lab, then of course ran and told the entire Lacks family making everyone just as distraught.

In 1985 Deborah read a book about what actually happened to Henrietta in the hospital for the first time. There were many disturbing facts and detailed medical records that family had not given permission to be published. In that time there was no law against publishing medical records it was only considered immoral. Several cases successfully sued for publication of medical records without consent but they were all alive, while Henrietta was dead.

"Christoph reached into the freezer behind him, grabbed another vial of HeLa cells, and held it out to Deborah, his eyes soft. She stood stunned for a moment, staring at his outstretched hand, then grabbed the vial...Zakkariya looked to the ground and nodded, the corners of his mouth turning up into a barely perceptible smile."
This passage is important to the story because it is the first time that any one in the Lacks family ever sees the HeLa cells in person. Deborah is nervous yet extremely excited and can not believe she is finally getting to see her mother's cells. At the same time history is being made, Zakkariya is being humane and civil in the presence of a scientist, whom he hates with a passion. The fact that both Deborah and her brother can put their feeling aside and just enjoy being able to see part of their mother in person is monumental.

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