Loretta Pleasant was born August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, to the late Eliza and Johnny Pleasant. Sometime after, her name was changed from Loretta to Henrietta. No one knows how Henrietta became her name. As a young child, Henrietta's mother passed away and she moved to be raised by her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, on a tobacco farm in her beloved Clover, Virginia. Henrietta married David ‘‘Day’’ Lacks in 1941 in Halifax County, Virginia. As a young mother, she would move north with Day to find opportunities in Baltimore and made a home in Turner Station in Dundalk, Maryland. There, Henrietta and Day built a life for themselves and their five children: Lawrence, Elsie, David, Deborah, and Joseph (Zakariyya).
Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore after experiencing extensive vaginal bleeding. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which was terminal and quickly consumed her body despite treatment. At only 31 years of age, Henrietta’s life was cut short on October 4, 1951. Unfortunately, her life was cut short but in her passing, Henrietta made medical history. Unknowingly, Henrietta has touched lives around the globe. Not all of Henrietta died that day in 1951. She left behind a piece of her that still lives today — it is called the HeLa cell. We are forever beholden to such an awesome lady and legacy.
Medical researchers took samples of Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous tumor during her treatment, and the HeLa cell line from her tumor proved remarkably resilient. These miracle cells are known as “HeLa” cells - derived from the first two letters of her first and last name. HeLa cells were a breakthrough in cell research - the first immortal line of human cells, doubling every 24 hours, dividing and replenishing indefinitely in a laboratory, and successfully growing outside of the human body for longer than 36 hours.
While the birth of the HeLa cells were making a global impact – her family was not informed. Henrietta Lacks’ cells were unique, growing by the millions, commercialized and distributed worldwide to researchers, resulting in advances in medicine. It was not until 20 years after Henrietta’s death that her family would learn how science retrieved her cells and of her enormous contribution to medicine and humanity.
The world would never be the same after the “HeLa” phenomena began in 1951. Since then, there has been mass production of the cells which have traveled around the globe, even into space! The HeLa cells are continually used for research and to test theories about the cause and treatment of diseases. Over 50,000,000 metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world to become the subject of more than 75,000 studies.
Advances made possible by Henrietta Lacks’ cells, and the revenues they generated were not known to her family for more than twenty years. Even though Henrietta’s cells launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, to date, her family has never received any of the revenues HeLa cells generated.
For more than six decades, Henrietta Lacks’ prolific cells continue to grow and contribute to remarkable advances in medicine, including the development of the polio vaccine, as well as drugs for treating the effects of cancer, HIV/AIDS, hemophilia, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease. HeLa cells have been used in research that has contributed to the understanding of the effects of radiation and zero gravity on human cells. They have also informed research on chromosomal conditions, cancer, gene mapping, precision medicine, and even the current coronavirus studies as the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Henrietta, unknowingly, changed the world forever! She has been called many things Immortal, Heroine of Modern Medicine, Medical Miracle, and Wonder Woman. Henrietta Lacks’ legacy has been recognized around the world through memorials, conferences, museum exhibitions, libraries, print, and visual media. Her story has been told by many, including Rebecca Skloot, the New York Times bestselling author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which inspired the HBO FILMS movie adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey. Her significant contributions have been recognized by the United States Congress, state legislatures, and local policymakers; and globally honored by governments, artists, schools, universities, scientists, patient advocates, social justice leaders, and more.
To Henrietta’s family, she was their cherished “Hennie,” daughter, wife, mother, grandmother and a friend to the world. Henrietta was a phenomenal woman during her lifetime and in Henrietta's passing, she continues to be a remarkable woman even in death. Henrietta was a woman who had a life, had a family, a husband, children, and friends who loved and depended upon her smile, her caring touch, her cooking and cleaning house, brushing and braiding hair and most importantly she loved to dance, and was fashionably stylish and enjoyed her favorite color-red. Her life and legacy will live on!
Henrietta Lacks continues to enhance many lives, even those who are unaware of her past existence. After all, Henrietta has a rich and important history and a great legacy that she left for her family to carry. Henrietta Lacks and her family’s experience is fundamental to modern bioethics policies and informed consent laws that benefit patients nationwide by building patient trust and protecting research participants. In 2013, the Lacks family entered a groundbreaking, HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement with the medical, scientific, and bioethics communities, giving them a role in regulating the HeLa genome sequences and discoveries.
In 2020, the life of Henrietta Lacks will be honored with a yearlong centennial celebration led by the Lacks Family. This phenomenal black woman, wife, and mother unknowingly changed the face of medical science, contributing to lasting, worldwide improvements in health. Henrietta is a hero of modern medicine, and her contributions to the medical discoveries resulting from her HeLa cells helped make possible some of the most important medical advances of the last century. Henrietta’s life has incontestably impacted global health, scientific research, bioethics, patient rights, and equity that benefit all people.
Helping Everyday Lives in Astonishing Ways!
We are continuing to CELLebrate Henrietta Lacks' life and legacy.