Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks (1920 to 1951) was an African-American woman whose cells were used without her consent for cancer research. While she herself was not a ‘woman in STEM,’ her cells, nicknamed “HeLa,” are the first immortal cell line, and are still alive today – contributing to cancer research around the world.

Henrietta Lacks

Who she was

The world’s first immortal cell line, “HeLa cells”, gets its name from the African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were collected while she was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. [1]

Henrietta died not long after her cancer cells were collected, and she never gave consent for the use of her cells. In fact it was decades before anyone thought to ask her family for any permission to share her cells, or publish her medical information.

For years, very little was known about the woman behind the cell line. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot, a science writer, published “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a book that became a best-seller and inspired the HBO movie of the same name. Since then, the story of Henrietta Lacks has become nearly as widely known as her famous cells.

Why she’s important

It is difficult to grasp the scale of the benefits that modern society has derived from the HeLa cell line, which allowed medical research that was previously difficult, if not impossible. Over 110,000 articles have been published based on this cell line alone. [2] The National Institute of Health states- “The versatility and power of HeLa cells have made them an essential laboratory tool that still continues to provide new clues about the basis of human health and disease.” In 2021 World Health Organization recognized Henrietta Lacks’ continued remarkable contribution to medicine, including critical COVID-19 research. [3]

Just a few of the scientific advances directly attributable to HeLa cells: [2]

  • Polio vaccine
  • Treatment for sickle cell anemia
  • HIV treatment
  • Understanding how cells age
  • Understanding tuberculosis
  • Cancer research — over 60 decades of improvements in mortality!

It is all but impossible for you, or someone you care about, to have not benefited from medical progress due to Henrietta Lacks. Please take a moment to learn about, and share her story.

How history did her seriously wrong

Today, it is standard for anyone participating in any kind of medical research to sign a consent form. But when Lacks’ cells were harvested in 1951, “informed consent” was not something that was regularly applied to Blacks. The Johns Hopkins cancer researchers who harvested her cells were specifically in search of an immortal cell line (most cells die within days of harvesting), and were routinely collecting cancer cells from Black women without their consent.

Even the book that made her famous has been controversial. In 2017, a member of the Lacks family sued a broad collection of those thought to have profited off of Henrietta Lacks’ cells, including the book’s author Rebecca Skloot (“a white woman… telling a black family story.”) [4]

The discovery of HeLa cells was a miracle that changed the world and the lives of millions, but it was also a grievous injustice against one Black family (and all those who were the victims of research without their consent). The wounds run deep even today:

… the story of Henrietta Lacks also illustrates the racial inequities that are embedded in the US research and health-care systems. Lacks was a Black woman. The hospital where her cells were collected was one of only a few that provided medical care to Black people. None of the biotechnology or other companies that profited from her cells passed any money back to her family. And, for decades after her death, doctors and scientists repeatedly failed to ask her family for consent as they revealed Lacks’s name publicly, gave her medical records to the media, and even published her cells’ genome online. — Nature.com [5]


1. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/importance-of-hela-cells.html

2. https://osp.od.nih.gov/hela-cells/significant-research-advances-enabled-by-hela-cells/

3.  https://www.who.int/news/item/13-10-2021-who-director-general-bestows-posthumous-award-on-the-late-henrietta-lacks 

4. https://www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2017/03/henrietta-lacks-estate-to-sue-hopkins-hospital/

5. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02494-z