BALTIMORE (CNS) — Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman whose cancer cells taken during a biopsy before her death in 1951 are the source of the first immortalized cell line in medical history.
An immortalized cell line will reproduce indefinitely under certain conditions, and Lacks’ cell line — named HeLa after her first and last names — has contributed to astonishing medical advances.
Virologist Jonas Salk credits the HeLa cells for his polio vaccine. Drugs common today in treating cancer, AIDS, herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia and Parkinson’s disease were developed from research done on HeLa cells.
HeLa cells were launched into space when the United States began testing to see how human cells would respond in zero gravity and were used to gauge the effects of the atomic bomb.
Radium treatments that Lacks received at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for cervical cancer that metastasized throughout her body burned her skin, causing horrific pain. She died Oct. 4, 1951, at age 31.
The first Saturday in August is known as “Henrietta Lacks Day” in Baltimore County, where she died. There’s a move afoot to have the date of Lacks’ death recognized as a national holiday.
During her treatment, samples of Lacks’ healthy and cancerous cells were given to hospital researchers who for decades tried to create the perfect liquid environment for human cells to live in outside the body. Up until then, cells placed in a Petri dish usually died within a few hours. Amazingly, while Lacks’ healthy cells died, her very strong and aggressive cancerous cells continued to reproduce — and are still doing so today.
The practice of taking tissue samples without a patient’s consent was standard at the time of Lacks’ death. There were no state or federal laws prohibiting it.
Lacks, who was a practicing Catholic at some point in her life, was living in Turner Station in Baltimore County when she died.
Courtney Speed, president of the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group and two other similar organizations in Turner Station, is working to highlight Lacks and to promote the revitalization of the community. She has a store crammed with Lacks memorabilia.
Speed, a humble woman who prefers to be addressed as “Servant Speed,” recalled the day in 1997 when the BBC asked for her help with a documentary it was doing on Lacks.
Speed admitted she hadn’t heard of Lacks, so she immediately telephoned one of her six sons who put her in touch with a cousin, Barbara Wyche, who does research. Within days, Speed marveled, Wyche brought Lacks’ daughter, Deborah Jean (Lacks) Pullam, to meet Speed.
“Deborah was so sad and depressed about knowing so little about her mother’s medical records,” Speed recalled in an interview with Catholic News Service.
Speed has spearheaded efforts to keep Lacks’ legacy alive for 20 years now. The first Henrietta Lacks Day in Turner Station was proclaimed Feb. 1, 1997, the anniversary of her first trip to Hopkins, and later moved to the first Saturday in August.
Speed also added Lacks’ name to the list of locals honored during Turner Station’s Black History Celebration held annually on the last Sunday in February.
She shared a copy of the Feb. 6, 1997, edition of The Dundalk Eagle weekly newspaper that had a brief but important tidbit about Lacks’ Catholic heritage.
Writer Terri Narrel Mause noted how Henrietta, her husband, David “Day” Lacks, and their two children moved to Turner Station from Clover, Virginia, in 1943 so that David could get a job at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point Shipyard. While in Turner Station, the Lackses had three more children.
David, their second son, was 49 when Mause interviewed him. He revealed that most of what he learned about his mother came from a 100-year-old aunt who still lived in Clover where his parents grew up.
“Alice Henry, known as Mam to her family, told Henrietta Lacks’ children that their mother was devoted to her Catholic faith and her family,” wrote Mause.
According to the Archives of Maryland’s biographical series, Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant Aug. 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, the ninth of 10 children of Johnny and Eliza Pleasant. After Eliza died in childbirth with the couple’s 10th child, her husband returned with his children to Clover where the siblings were divided among relatives for rearing.
Henrietta, 4, was given to her maternal grandfather, Tommy Lacks, who was already caring for another grandchild, her 9-year-old cousin David — and future husband.
The children shared the same bedroom in a two-story log cabin that was previously the slave quarters on a plantation once owned by Henrietta’s white great-grandfather and great-uncle. They worked on their grandfather’s tobacco farm with their other siblings and cousins.
Henrietta and Day had their first child, Lawrence, when she was 14, got married after daughter Elsie was born and relocated to Turner Station right before World War II.
No one knows when Loretta changed her name to Henrietta. Perhaps it resulted from Loretta’s relationship with her Aunt Alice Henry and a desire to pay tribute to her aunt’s influence on her life.
When Henrietta arrived in Clover, she was 4 and Alice Henry was 27. So, before Henrietta left Clover, they had 19 years to bond enough for the aunt to note in particular that “Henry-etta” was not only practicing her Catholic faith but was devoted to it and to her family.
Was her aunt Catholic too? What church did they have ties to?
The first Catholic mission was not begun in Turner Station until 1944, one year after the Lackses’ arrival. Josephite Father John Albert began saying Mass then in the local recreation hall.
Henrietta’s family and friends nicknamed her “Hennie.” In the Maryland archives, one of her friends reflected that “Hennie made life come alive — bein’ with her was like bein’ with fun. Hennie just love peoples.” While her husband worked, she “spent her time cooking for Day, the children, whichever cousins happened to be at her house” at 713 New Pittsburgh Ave. “She made her famous rice pudding and slow-cooked greens, chitlins, and the vats of spaghetti with meatballs she kept going on the stove.”
It took author Rebecca Skloot 10 years to win the trust of the Lacks family while writing her New York Times best-seller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” published in 2010. The book became an inspiration for this year’s HBO television drama by the same title starring Oprah Winfrey.
Greene was an associate editor in CNS’s Special Projects department for nearly 22 years.