Henrietta Lacks: An Abbreviated Revolutionary

lacks 1What do the polio vaccine, humans in space, the cosmetic industry, and nuclear bombs have in common? If you answered that they all involved the use of HeLa cells, congratulations: you are correct. If you think “HeLa” is gibberish, I suggest that you continue reading to learn how one woman revolutionized not only science, but also the efficacy of societal ethics in scientific research.

“HeLa” is an abbreviation for Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a poor, African American woman who died in 1951 due to complications from cervical cancer. While she underwent treatment for her cancer at Johns Hopkins University, a biopsy of Henrietta’s cells was taken, unbeknownst to her, and given to the researcher Dr. George Gey [1]. These cells from the very tumor that killed Henrietta are also what made her so special.

Henrietta’s cells came to Dr. Gey as part of his mission to grow the first self-sustainable human cell line. Ideally, this cell line would be considered “immortal” because it would undergo constant division. Such a cell line would provide an inexpensive, never-ending sample of cells with which scientists could perform experiments and study. Thus, when provided a sample of Henrietta’s cells, Dr. Gey conducted his usual routine to determine if the cells had the ability to multiply on their own: he had them cut up and put in a machine that constantly rotated the cells in a liquid medium. Much to the surprise of many, Henrietta’s cells repeatedly divided due to some unknown reason and multiplied quickly [2].

Since this discovery of the multiplicative nature of HeLa cells, they have been mass distributed to laboratories across the world and used in a variety of experiments from many different subject areas. Notably in the scientific community, HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to develop the polio vaccine and were the chief subject of research under President Nixon’s “War on Cancer”. HeLa cells were also sent into space to test how human cells would react to interstellar conditions: a precursor to the first humans in space. Additionally, HeLa cells were bought by many cosmetic companies to use in experimental tests to determine how their products affected human cells [3].

This widespread use of HeLa cells was not common knowledge until the BBC documentary, The Way of All Flesh, first aired in 1997. The film briefly discussed Henrietta Lacks and detailed the uses of her cells and their benefits to society. The Way of All Flesh also explored the treatment of Henrietta and her family. The documentary stated that while major corporations made money by mass distributing HeLa cells to laboratories, the Lacks family struggled to make ends meet, had no health insurance, and lived off welfare. Furthermore, these cells were taken from Henrietta and used without her informed consent [3]. By the time the film aired, the treatment of Henrietta was no longer considered ethical by societal standards [4].

As people learned about the unethical treatment of Henrietta Lacks and became more aware about the mechanisms of research experiments, they became outraged [5]. Although this treatment may have been deemed ethical in the time of Henrietta Lacks, it was not acceptable in the form of society present when the details of her cell line were revealed [4]. Since then, ethical principles that protect human subjects of research experiments have been established. Most relevant to the treatment of Henrietta Lacks is the principle of informed consent, which states that human subjects must fully understand the study in which they participate and any risks surrounding their participation [6]. If this principle was applied to Henrietta Lacks, she would have been asked if her cells could be given to Dr. Gey and then explained the importance and potential impact of the immortal cells.

lacks 2Although The Way of All Flesh introduced the history of HeLa cells to many people in society, these cells attained greater societal exposure through the recent best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks not only details the treatment of Henrietta Lacks and the uses of her immortal cells, but also gives a thorough account of Henrietta’s life and relays the emotions felt by her family today [2]. This book achieved fame quickly after its publication in 2010 and was featured in many television shows, magazines, and awards shows before being adapted into its own film [7].

To sum up the effect of Henrietta Lacks, one writer eloquently stated that Henrietta was one of the most important people in science and “has now become immortal twice­—once biologically, and once culturally” [8]. HeLa cells were well known in the scientific community for revolutionizing research long before society even knew for what “HeLa” stood. Once the true origin of these cells became known to society, however, Henrietta Lacks also revolutionized how society affects the ethical principles of human research experiments. Such effects now include the establishment of many ethical principles, such as informed consent [6]. Thus, as an African American woman in the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks changed the relationship between scientific practice and the ethics of society and is now immortalized in history for initiating these revolutions.


  1. Jones, H. W. “Record of the First Physician to See Henrietta Lacks at the Johns Hopkins Hospital: History of the Beginning of the HeLa Cell Line.” in American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 176: S227–S228.
  2. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Broadway Books, 2017.
  3. Curtis, Adam. They Way of All Flesh. BBC, 1997, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgMUlVl-poE. Accessed 1 Mar. 2017.
  4. Stump, Jessica L. “Henrietta Lacks and The HeLa Cell: Rights of Patients and Responsibilities of Medical Researchers.” History Teacher 48, issue 1: pp. 127–180.
  5. Gross, Terry, and Rebecca Skloot. “’Henrietta Lacks’: A Donor’s Immortal Legacy.” National Public Radio (February 2010). www.npr.org/2010/02/02/123232331/henrietta-lacks-a-donors-immortal-legacy
  6. Mandal, Jharna, et al. “Ethics and Clinical Research.” Tropical Parasitology 1, issue 2: 54–56.
  7. Skloot, Rebecca. “Book Special Features.” Rebecca Skloot. rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/book-special-features/.
  8. Lantos, John D. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Henrietta Lacks.” Project MUSE, doi.org/10.1353/pbm.2017.0007.

Image References:

  1. www.lacksfamily.net
  2. Smithsonian.com (2010) © Omar Quintero.

Cassandra White is a first-year member of the Triple Helix at The George Washington University. She is a freshman who will be graduating in 2020 with a BS in Biological Sciences and a BS in Public Health.

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