The history of medicine echoes with the familiar names of people who made important contributions to the field: Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, Marie Curie, Jonas Salk.
None made a contribution to medicine as far-reaching or personal as Henrietta Lacks. Until this year, few people even knew who she was.
On a recent blisteringly hot summer day, a small group of people gathered in Turner Station to remember Henrietta and unveil plans for a historic marker in front of the former Lacks home at 513 New Pittsburg Road.
Her story was told in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, published in February by Crown Books.
Cancer cells from Lacks – taken without her permission while receiving treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital – were the first grown in a laboratory. Known as HeLa cells, a concatenation of her name, they were a breakthrough that led to countless discoveries and launched the multi-billion dollar biotech industry.
Born in Roanoake, Virginia, in 1920, Henrietta grew up on a tobacco farm and married at age 15 to David Lacks, who moved to Turner Station when World War II produced a boom in jobs in the steel mills and shipyards of Dundalk.
Turner Station is a small, close-knit African-American community tucked into the Southeast corner of Baltimore County, separated from the Dundalk Marine Terminal by a 15-foot sound barrier.
Despite the notoriety gained by the release of Skloot’s book and the ensuing publicity, Lacks is not Turner Station’s most famous resident. That would be Kevin Clash, the Emmy-winning puppeteer who is the voice and alter ego of Sesame Street’s Elmo. Clash was born at 510 New Pittsburg Road, across the street from the former Lacks house.
But it was Lacks that drew people to Union Baptist Church on Main Street. Jeri Lacks Whye thanked the gathering for coming to honor her grandmother. She quoted scripture, from the Gospel of John: “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
In 1951, as a 30-year-old mother of five children, Henrietta died from an extraordinarily malignant and aggressive cancer of the cervix. At Johns Hopkins, a biopsy of her cancer was taken to a lab where researchers were trying to coax human cells to survive outside of the body. Although scientists around the world had been trying to cultivate human cells for years, the cultures eventually died out.
Lacks’ cells didn’t die. They kept dividing and growing, thriving to this day and achieving a pathological immortality. According to Skloots, more than 50 million metric tons of HeLa cells have been grown over the years, a mass lager than a hundred Empire State Buildings.
HeLa cells were the first to survive outside of the human body, and the first distributed by cell banks. HeLa cells were employed in the development the polio vaccine, and were used to determine that humans have 23 pair of chromosomes. They were he first human cells sent into space. HeLa cells have instrumental in myriad discoveries in medicine and biology, the testing of drugs and vaccines, and advances of in vitro fertilization and cloning.
Although Hopkins never licensed or sold the HeLa cells, nor profited from their sale, they were freely shared with other researchers, institutions, and companies who used them to make valuable discoveries. Entire companies and industries owe their foundation to HeLa cells.
The Lacks family has never received a dime of compensation, nor for a long time even correct attribution. For many years, the source of HeLa cells was reported as Helen Lane. The Lacks children were used for research purposes without their clear understanding of why Henrietta and her family were of such compelling scientific interest. Individuals at Hopkins committed egregious acts, such as giving confidential medical records to newspaper and magazine reporters, that are clearly illegal today.
Skloot’s book documents her pursuit of Henrietta’s story, in particular her relationship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The family was tormented by the thought that Henrietta was still alive in laboratories around the world, and being experimented upon. Does that mean she’s not in heaven? If she was so important to medicine – the basis of huge fortunes – why does the family still live in poverty and without health insurance?
Since the book’s release, the family has gained a new perspective on Henrietta’s role in history. At Union Baptist Church, before a procession walked down Main Street to the former Lacks home, a collection basket was passed to support the family’s travel to Atlanta to attend a memorial honoring Henrietta at Morehouse College of Medicine in September.
Skloot established a scholarship fund for Henrietta’s descendants, to which she and members of the public have donated. The foundation may soon get another boost, since Oprah Winfrey announced plans to produce a movie for HBO based on the book along with Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood).
According to Whye, several family members have begun the process of applying for educational funds from the foundation.
In front of 513 New Philadelphia Road, a Boy Scout troop recited the Pledge of Allegiance and a sign reading “We Will Always Remember” was placed on the sidewalk gate of the property. Family members posed for pictures on the front porch, by the window where Henrietta posed in one of the few images of her that exist.
Later, Whye pointed to the empty spot on the sidewalk in front of the house where a historical marker is to be placed one day.
Video of the ceremony and the family is below.