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Henrietta Lacks was an African-American patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital located in Baltimore, Maryland who unknowing donated cancerous tumor cells during a biopsy for her cervical cancer. George Otto Gey cultured the cells to create the HeLa cell line. The HeLa is the first human, immortal cell line and is used in modern medical research today. She is the subject of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Young Life

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia to Johnny and Eliza Pleasant.[1] Family members do not recall how she became Henrietta from Loretta, other than the fact they nicknamed her, “Hennie.”[2] Her mother died in 1924 after giving birth to the family’s tenth child.[3]

Lack's father decided to move the Lacks family to Clover, Virginia after his wife died. He could not handle his many children alone and the siblings took residence with various relatives. Henrietta Lacks moved in with Tommy Lacks, her grandfather, who lived in a log cabin that formally housed slaves on the plantation owned by her white great-grandfather and great-uncle. [4] She shared a room with her 9-year-old cousin, David “Day” Lacks. He later became her husband.[5]

Marriage and Family

Henrietta Lacks worked as a tobacco farmer with her family members in Clover. She gave birth to a son, Lawrence Lacks, in 1935 at only 14-years-old, and a daughter Elsie Lacks, in 1939. Her cousin fathered both children and Elsie suffered from noticeable developmental disabilities. Lacks married her cousin on April 10, 1941, in Halifax County, Virginia. Fred Garrett, their cousin, encouraged the move, but soon left to fight in World War Two. Garrett gave the Lacks family his savings, they purchased a house in Turner Station, in what is now Dundalk, Maryland. Turner Station housed one of the largest and oldest African-American communities at that time in Baltimore County.

Henrietta and Day produced three more children David “Sonny”, Jr. in 1947, Deborah in 1949, and Joseph, later Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman, in 1950. She gave birth to Joseph at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital to treat black patients in the area, just four and half months before being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Also in November 1950, Elsie Lacks was committed to the Hospital for the Negro Insane, now known as Crownsville Hospital Center. She died there in 1955.[6]

Cancer and Johns Hopkins

Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins on January 29, 1951, complaining of feeling a “knot” in her uterus. The “knot” persisted since before her last child was born and after she gave birth, she experienced severe hemorrhaging. Her primary care doctor checked her for syphilis, but it came back negative. Lacks returned to Johns Hopkins and her physician, Howard W. Jones performed a biopsy of the mass growing on her cervix. The results revealed she had cervical malignant epidermoid carcinoma. Physicians studying the sample in 1970 discovered it was actually adenocarcinoma, but the treatment would not have differed and it was a common mistake at the time.

Henrietta Lacks did not know the second samples taken without her knowledge would lead medical advances and still be used in research today.

Another doctor treated her with radium tube inserts as an inpatient operation and discharged her a few days later. She needed to return for X-ray treatments to follow-up in a few days. During the treatments, in which Lacks was under anesthesia so her cervix could be surrounded by radium capsules, but she was never informed. One tissue cancer-free and one cancerous.

George Otto Gey, a Johns Hopkins physician and cancer researcher, received the samples. He used the cancerous sample cells to create what is now known as the HeLa immortal cell line. A cell line evades the normal growth stopping mechanisms and continues to undergo cell division and can be grown for long periods in vitro. The cell line made from Lacks’ cells is still used in modern biomedical research.[7]

Death and Recognition

Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins for routine cancer treatment on August 8, 1951, and asked the hospital to admit her for constant and severe abdominal pain. The hospital gave her a blood transfusion and she remained there until her death from uremic poisoning on October 4, 1951. [8] A partial autopsy revealed the cancer had metastasized throughout her body.

Lacks was buried in the family cemetery in an unmarked grave in Halifax County, Virginia. Her exact burial location is not recorded, but it is believed she rests only a few feet from her mother. Roland Pattillo, a Morehouse School of Medicine faculty member who knew the Lacks family and worked with George Gey donated a headstone for Henrietta Lacks in 2010. The family felt inspired to raise money for a headstone for Elsie Lacks as well and they were placed on the same day.[9]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The biographical book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot addresses Lacks’ life and the many discoveries permitted by Lacks’ cancerous cells.[10] George Otto Gey used them to successfully create cells that could be reproduced at high rates and kept alive long enough to allow for proper examination. Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells divided many, many times without dying and became known as, “immortal.”

Henrietta Lacks’ immortality was never known to her during her life, and only accidentally discovered by her family after her death.

Gey used cells from her corpse as well that led to the HeLa cells permanent inclusion in medical research. HeLa because Gey used the first two letters of every patient’s first and surnames. Jonas Salk used the HeLa cells to develop the polio vaccine in 1954. They were shared with researchers and scientists around the world for “research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits.”[11] The first successfully cloned human cells were HeLa cells in 1955, and since the 1950s, over 20 tons of HeLa cells have been grown with around 11,000 patents using the HeLa cells.

Other cell cultures contaminated a significant portion of HeLa cells in the early 1970s and Lacks’ family members began receiving requests for blood donations from researchers to replace the contaminated cells.[12] This is how the Lacks family learned of the history of Henrietta’s tumor cells.[13]


 Skloot, R. (2011). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Smith, V. (2002, April 17). Wonder Woman The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science. City Paper Online.[1]

Watson, D. M. (2015, November 6). Cancer cells killed Henrietta lacks - then made her immortal. The Virginian Pilot.[2]


  1. Skloot, 2011
  2. Watson, 2015
  3. Skloot, 2011
  4. Watson, 2015
  5. Skloot, 2011
  6. Watson, 2015
  7. Skloot, 2011
  8. Smith, 2002
  9. Watson, 2015
  10. Skloot, 2011
  11. Smith, 2002
  12. Skloot, 2011
  13. Watson, 2015

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