Henrietta Lacks August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951
In 1951, a young mother of five named Henrietta Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of vaginal bleeding. When the doctor examined her he found that she had a large malignant tumor on her cervix.
She immediately began treatment for her cervical cancer and unknown to her a sample of her cancer cells were taken without her permission during the biopsy process. The doctor at the local lab were her cells were sent, had been collecting cells from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer, but each sample quickly died.
But to the doctor’s amazement, the cells of Mrs. Lacks’ were unlike any of the other cells he had ever seen. All the previous cells he collected would die rather quickly, however Mrs. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.
They named her cells “HeLa” cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names. Today the HeLa cells are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine. Although Mrs. Lacks died in 1951, at the age of 31, her cells still
continue to be a source of invaluable medical data today.
Lacks was given a posthumous honorary doctorate in public service and was also inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.
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