Henrietta Lacks

Written in a biology textbook in the index “cell culture” written was:

In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be “immortal.” A striking example is a cell line that has been producing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumor removed from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.)

Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.

Henrietta’s cell’s have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it.

Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that supreme it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have be ome the standard laboratory workhorse.

HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 18th, 1920. Henrietta’s great-great-grandmother was a slave named Mourning. A white man named John Smith Pleasants inherited Mourning and her husband, George, from his father, one of the first slave holders in Clover. Pleasants’ father came from a family of Quakers, and one of his distant relatives had been the first to successfully to free his own slaves through the Virginia courts. But Pleasants hadn’t carried on  the family’s antislavery tradition.


The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I cannot recommend this book enough, just by chance I found this book in a charity shop which was a wonderful find. Again we find injustice, Henrietta’s cancer cells were taken without her knowledge which became a multimillion dollar industry. Henrietta’s family did not learn about her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death.



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