We Should All Know The Name Henrietta Lacks

On a hot summer day, August 1, 1920, a woman named Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia. Though blessed with the gift of life, she was not blessed with the advantage of good fortune. At the tender age of 4, her mother died while giving birth to her 10th child. Not too long after, her father moved the family to Clover, Virginia, only to abandon them and leave her to her maternal grandfather...

During this very delicate period of her life, she tended to the family farm located on a plantation owned by her great-grandparents. Her living space was very modest and tucked neatly into the former quarters of slaves. In sixth grade, she was forced to make the difficult decision to drop out of school to work and support her family. At the age of only 14, she gave birth to her first child, and then her second at 18. Compounding all of the misery, pain and suffering of her childhood, her beloved second child was diagnosed with epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

A bit of breathing room finally came later to Lacks. After drudging through her difficult childhood, she would marry and give birth to three more children. However, all good things would eventually come to an end.

All of this would lead up to that fateful day in November of 1950, when Lacks was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Yet unbeknownst to her, her cancer would inevitably be exactly what would seal her fate &r legacy forever. Doctors from her hospital would go on to collect tissue samples from her uterus only to discover that the immeasurable pain and suffering that Lacks endured would prove to be what opened the door to an entirely new era of scientific research and advancements in medicine.

Lacks’ cells were immortal.  

Typically, cells can only live for a very short period of time outside the body. This short period of time is never nearly long enough to conduct worthwhile studies on them. In addition, they can only replicate themselves a finite number of times, and past a certain point, no more cells will be reproduced.

However, Lacks’s cells were completely different. Not only were her cells able to survive for longer periods of time outside of her body, but they also continued to replicate themselves every 24 hours. This discovery allowed scientists the opportunity to continually replicate and study actual living human cells outside of the human body for much longer periods of time, an invaluable opportunity for the study of cellular biology

This phenomenon provided a window through which scientists were able to develop some of the most widely recognized & beneficial vaccines, such as the Polio and smallpox & measles. Lacks’ cells have also even been used more broadly to study the effects of radiation, makeup and even the zero gravity environment of outer space.

Yes, her cells have even been sent into space.

In summary, Lacks’s cells have provided the basis of research for nearly 11,000 new patents. While most of us believe it’s a virtue to be able to save the life of just one person, it’s an entirely different matter altogether to save the lives of millions, much less the lives of people who haven’t even been born yet or may not yet be born for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. However, that’s exactly what Lacks unknowingly has accomplished. And what was her unfortunate reward for the contributions her cells have made to advancements in medical science? An agonizing, premature death filled with immeasurable pain and suffering, and a public memory slowly fading with the passing of the years.  

Lacks deserves much more recognition than she has received, and she deserved a better life than she lived.

Perhaps her story and legacy should be taught in schools; or she could be posthumously awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Statues and plaques of her could be erected in hospitals and medical research centers everywhere. Because if it were not for her, many Nobel scientists and many of those who still conduct research on her cells today, would not have the legacy & notoriety they now enjoy.

No living human being has actually singlehandedly come as close to saving as many number of lives as she has. Lacks’ cells have not not saved countless lives from the depths of suffering in the past, but will continue to do so for decades, and possibly even centuries, into the future.  

The impact on Humanity from Lacks’s God given legacy really can’t be measured. She may be the only person ever discovered to have immortal, fast-replicating cells. If that’s turns out to be the case, then we have even more of a reason to consider her as the miracle she was, remains and always will be.

A thousand years from now, society may have well already forgotten her, but there is now and always will remain, a very small part of Henrietta Lacks in all of us.✪

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