An Immortal Life with an Immortal Legacy

  • February 22, 2012

D'An Hagan writes of Henrietta Lacks, the young woman who began the immortal and most prolific cell line that continues to drive scientific research and advancement long after her death.

By D’An Hagan

The story of the young woman who began the cell line that continues to drive scientific research and advancement long after her death is a notably unknown figure in not only the black historical narrative but also the annals of medical science. Owing to limited education and means, mental illness, and superstition, Henrietta Lacks and her family endured deception and injustice in every corner of the segregated society in which she lived. Henrietta’s short life and aggressive carcinoma paved the way for medical breakthroughs that continue to save the lives of countless others more than six decades later.  Her story is told by Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Her family still does not know where exactly Henrietta lies buried in Clover, Virginia.  Her resting place is an unmarked grave in her family’s cemetery in Lackstown, land held by the black descendants of the Lacks family after they received it from the white members.  She likely lies within feet of her mother’s grave, the only one with a headstone.

She was born Loretta Pleasant August 1, 1920, in a small shack near a train depot in Roanoke, Virginia. When her mother, Eliza, died in childbirth four years later, she moved to Clover to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks. Her grandfather lived on a tobacco farm in a four-room log cabin that was once slave quarters. Here, Loretta was raised with her cousin David (“Day”) Lacks, who was five years older and whose mother had left him there to be raised by his grandfather. They shared a bedroom and woke each morning at 4 a.m. to milk the cows and feed the farm animals. They also tended the crops and the tobacco fields, and often, when their work was done and the weather was warm, would go to the swimming hole.

As she grew up with her cousin in her grandfather’s home, no one in the family remembered how or when her name became Henrietta Lacks; but given the cramped living conditions, no one was surprised that shortly after her fourteenth birthday, she announced that she was pregnant and that she and her cousin Day planned to be married. They had two children over the next four years:  Lawrence, her first at the age of 14, and Lucile Elsie, her second when Henrietta was 18. Seeking a better life apart from the poverty of Clover, Henrietta and Day left the tobacco fields and their grandfather’s four-room cabin and boarded a train to Baltimore, when Henrietta was 21 with two small children in tow.

It was still the era of Jim Crow nine years later when she walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only hospital that treated negro patients in the Baltimore area, now 30 and a mother of four.  Henrietta did not fully understand the ramifications of the “knot” she felt inside, which knot turned out to be what her cousins suspected was a pregnancy.  After Henrietta gave birth to her fifth child months later, she began experiencing significant pain and profuse bleeding. An examination at Johns Hopkins found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Her physician, Howard Jones, had never seen a tumor like hers. It was shiny and purple tumor and resembled “grape Jello,” he wrote, and “so delicate that it bled at the slightest touch.”

The doctor’s notes from January 1951 comment on Henrietta’s remarkable patient history: that she had recently given birth at Johns Hopkins September 19, 1950, and that there was no record of the abnormality of her cervix at that time, or at the six-week follow-up visit. And now, just three months after her delivery, Henrietta presented with a fully formed tumor that either doctors had missed, which Jones thought extremely unlikely, or that had grown at a highly accelerated rate since she gave birth 12 weeks before.

By September, tumors covered nearly her entire body. They grew along her lungs, diaphragm, and bladder and obstructed her intestines. As a family member later recounted, “Henrietta rose up out that bed wailin’ like she been possessed by the devil of pain itself.” By October 4, 1951, Henrietta died a little after midnight at the age of 31, leaving behind Day and her five children. The official cause of death was terminal uremia, or blood poisoning from the toxins that built up because her kidneys no longer functioned properly. Baseball-sized tumors had all but replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus, and according to a medical report, “her organs were so covered in small white tumors (that) it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls.”

Cells from Henrietta’s cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey. Dr. Gey found that the cells behaved in way that he had never observed before. Unlike most patient cells that were cultured and could last for several days, Henrietta’s cells could be kept alive and grow.[1] In his examination of her cells, he was able to isolate a single cell, multiply it, and produce a cell line. The cells he tested eventually became the immortal cell lineHeLa” (for the first two letters of her first and last names), the oldest and most commonly used cell line in biomedical research. HeLa cells were deemed “immortal” because they did not die after a few cell division and could be used for conducting multiple experiments, a groundbreaking discovery in medical research. Moreover, her cells, aggressive in growth and capable of contaminating any other cell with which they came into contact, continue to outlive her more than 60 years later. HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to test the first polio vaccine, and have been used in cancer and AIDS research, gene mapping, and other studies that test the effects of radiation and toxic substances.

Sources for this feature include:

*Emmett Lacks (cousin). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot.

*Claiborne, Ron; Wright IV, Sydney (January 31, 2010). “How One Woman’s Cells Changed Medicine.” ABC World News.

D’An Hagan resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and works for a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that raises millions of dollars for international charities each year. She is currently writing her own Young Adult novel that is a never-before-told fairytale based on a classic children’s tale. She earned her Master of Science degree from Cornell University with a Communication concentration, and her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Florida A&M University.

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