Henrietta Lacks The Life and The After

The Life

Henrietta Lacks is a black woman. She had 5 kids. She was born in 1920. The tumor in her cervix began to grow before she had her last son, Joseph. The tumor grew at an alarming rate. She discovered the 'knot' when she was 30. She began having radiation treatment at John Hopkins Hospital. Her abdomen turned extremely dark. Her cells were taken during a check-up. She began going through agonizing pain and was committed to a John Hopkins for 24 hour supervision. Henrietta died October 4, 1951.

The After

Doctors took her cells without permission and began testing to grow them in culture. The scientists soon became aware that her cells would grow indefinitely as long as they had culture medium. HeLa soon became a multi-million dollar industry and led to significant steps in the progress of science. Henrietta's family was never informed of the great things her mother cells were doing for the medical world, they had to discover on their own.

What is HeLa?

HeLa cells are cells that were taken as a sample from Henrietta's cervical tumor. Therefore, all HeLa is cancer. HeLa helped scientists make strides in scientific progress. HeLa has helped tremendously in the research for the polio vaccine, the effects of radiation, the effects of deep sea pressure, and many more.


  1. 1954 - The pseudonym 'Helen Lane' was first used in an article - This pseudonym was used to keep Henrietta, the real source of HeLa, and her family out of the press as long as possible. The pseudonym was used with the intention of extended privacy for the Lackses.
  2. 1954 - Chester Southam began to conduct experiments without the patient's consent to see if HeLa injections cause cancer - The release of these experiments caused uproar in the scientific community due to the fact that the patients who were being injected were not aware they were being injected with cancer and were at the risk of getting cancer.
  3. 1966 - Stanley Gartler drops the "HeLa bomb" - Gartler revealed that HeLa was stronger and more wide spread than scientists thought. He stated that HeLa had the power to travel through air and contaminate other cell lines. HeLa would take control of the other cells lines and eventually turn the whole cell line into HeLa. This caused millions of dollars in damaged with failed research. In some eyes, the HeLa bomb was seen as "poetic justice".
  4. 1973 - Researchers from John Hopkins take samples from Henrietta's children without informed consent - Researchers wanted to do further research on the HeLa contamination accusation. To do this, they took samples of DNA from her children to find Henrietta's DNA markers so they could determine when HeLa cells were in an experiment when it wasn't supposed to be.
  5. 1991 - The Supreme Court of California ruled against John Moore. This law stated that once tissues leave the body, with or without consent, that person no longer had rights to those tissues and the possible profit of those tissues. - This ruling took all of the legal action Henrietta's family could have taken away. Stating that once the tissues are removed they aren't yours, this is saying that HeLa is no longer Henrietta's. Therefore, taking away all legal rights her family had over the cells.

Important Passage

  • "I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we'd been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman." (91)
  • I chose this passage because it honestly hit home to me. This was the first moment since the book began that HeLa was humanized. All the scientists that used HeLa only saw the cells, not the human they came from. Mary, Gey's assistant, was the first to see the actual human body that HeLa came from. Mary got to imagine Henrietta sitting on her bed painting the toenails that were so badly chipped now. It finally hit her that the cells that they were manufacturing, studying, and sending all over the world for research came from an actual human being. It finally hit Mary that Henrietta lived.

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