She Died. Her Cells Didn’t.

Henrietta Lacks was born a Black girl in rural Virginia on August 1, 1920, and was buried there thirty-one years later — buried on old plantation grounds — in an unmarked grave.

As children, Henrietta and her cousins spent the long, drowsy nights of harvest season on beds of dried tobacco. They’d gaze up at “ceiling beams the size of trees,” and listen to laughter roaring into the warehouse from deep below. The Lackses were farmers. Before that, they were slaves with a family tree marked by generations of carryings-on with white slaveowners.

Racism, as Henrietta’s parents and grandparents knew it, adopted a different guise.

Lacks Town, where they all lived, was “colored” territory. It was a place the locals pinpointed by the nearest lynch tree, by the school baseball field that doubled as a Ku Klux Klan meeting spot well into the 1980’s. White and Black Lackses didn’t mix. They went to different churches and stayed on different halves of the former Lacks estate. Race simmered quietly there, in undertones.

The South of Henrietta’s childhood, home to 80% of the nation’s ten million African-Americans, wasn’t all that different. As one writer put it, “the Negro had reached a nadir…he either accepted his old place in the social spectrum or moved to northern cities. Anti-lynching bills were repeatedly and successfully filibustered, and the NAACP was as yet weak and ineffectual.”

But so was the Klan. And even in spite of a recent resurgence in the region, it remained virtually “close to impotence.” Racism, as Henrietta’s parents and grandparents knew it, adopted a different guise.

A Place She Had Never Been

When she was twenty-one, Henrietta boarded a train headed to Baltimore. A little town called Turner Station — steel country, coal country, brick projects in four, five hundred units. Her husband, Day, had scraped together enough money to buy them and the children a place there, and now, for one of the last times in her life, she watched the sun chase her through shocks of green and yellow and through hundred-year-old oak and through miles of lazy, winding farmland to a place she had never been. It was 1942.

“Colored” Medicine

Johns Hopkins was, in the words of certain records, “an abolitionist even before the term was coined.” Like Henrietta — like many in the South, really— he worked the family tobacco farm as a child. He had to. In 1807, as the story goes, his father freed a hundred slaves. That day, twelve-year-old Johns found his schooling days behind him; there were jobs to be done.

What impressions this experience left on the preteen is uncertain. Perhaps his father made slavery, and slaveowners, anathema to him. Like Rome and Romans to young Hannibal. Perhaps he despised the work. Perhaps it’s all lies. Findings released only two years ago now cast doubt on the anecdote — and indicate that Johns himself owned slaves, too.

Whomever others thought him to be, it is undeniable who Johns Hopkins was: one of the wealthiest men of his time. He would pay his fortune forward in death with the institution of the university and hospital that, today, bear his name. Certainly remarkable for the period, Hopkins’ will stipulated that $7 million be reserved for this purpose, and that the hospital be admissible to whites and Blacks alike. It contained no such instructions for the university, however. When a Black man gained entry in 1887, the trustees raised the price of admission, pushing him out. During the early twentieth century, as Jim Crow swept through the United States, they struck again — banning Black students altogether. In fact, the color bar at Hopkins wouldn’t be broken until 1946 — four years after Henrietta came to town.

In January of 1951, when Henrietta first knew something was wrong, she was led to a “colored” exam room in this, the only hospital in Baltimore that would take her in. She would be subjected to testing, biopsy, sterilization — without consent.

An African-American ward at a Miami hospital in 1944.

Despite his best intentions, Johns’ hospital faced the same fate as his university. There were “colored” wards, “colored” morgues, “colored” bathrooms, “colored” fountains. In January of 1951, when Henrietta first knew something was wrong, she was led to a “colored” exam room in this, the only hospital in Baltimore that would take her in. She would be subjected to testing, biopsy, sterilization — without consent. She would be propped up with morphine, with painkillers. Even after dying she’d be abused, flocked by legions of white physicians desperate for more of the cells that ultimately killed her. She’d be exploited. They’d get rich.

Growing Pains

Henrietta’s mother, Eliza, died when she was young — no more than three or four years old. It’s doubtful, then, that Henrietta remembered much of what her mom was like. But she must have heard stories.

Eliza Pleasant, born Eliza Comer and remembered as Eliza Lacks, seems to have never attended school. She didn’t learn to read or write until adulthood. She was already married by 17. She was a domestic wife, like her daughter after her and her mother before, and grew up in a big family with perhaps as many as 10 brothers and sisters. Eliza died, only 34 years old, trying to deliver a tenth child of her own.

John Pleasant, her husband, didn’t have the patience to raise a house full of kids after that. He shipped them off to family— one to this aunt, one to another — and, along the way, Hennie ended up with her maternal grandfather, Thomas Lacks. In the “home-house,” former slave quarters, she met David Lacks. Day. He was five years her senior. He was her cousin.

The Lacks “home-house” in 1999.

It’s impossible to tell what was going through Henrietta’s mind for those nine years after the move to Turner Station. Maybe she wondered about her mother. About how she died.

“I got a knot inside me,” she described it, “A knot. It hurt somethin’ awful.”

We know she wanted more children. By November 1949, Henrietta had her fourth: Deborah. The following year, she had Joseph.

For months before he was born— before Henrietta even knew she was pregnant again — she kept telling her closest cousins and girlfriends something wasn’t right. She complained about vicious pain, pain she reckoned had to do with baby Deborah’s delivery. Or infections Day brought home from all those women he was with. “I got a knot inside me,” she described it, “A knot. It hurt somethin’ awful.”

Then came the blood.

At All Costs

Every monster needs a name. “Typhus,” a disease marked by violent, erratic fever and delirium, got its from the same Greek root as our modern “typhoon.” “Influenza” came from the Latin influentia, owing to the idea that the cyclical flu emerged and receded with the influence of the stars. “Tuberculosis” is Latin, too. Its etymology, which traces all the way back to the word tuber, draws parallels to victims’ swollen glands — to abscesses where lymph nodes have been overrun with mycobacteria, to lesions of ruptured skin.

It was only by Hippocrates’ time, however, that physicians dared wrangle the most feared disease of all. Exposing it by scalpel, they described hosts of engorged, misshapen tumors — fibrous, blood vessels rippling away like outspread claws, surfaces as hard as carapace, cold. The Greeks called the affliction karkínos — an aggressive “crab” — and medical students, as Egyptian surgeons centuries before them, knew better than to mess around it. Excise if you can, cauterize if you need to, and, if nothing else works, leave it alone. It was best to simply let the patient die with the least suffering.

Today, it has a different name. But often similar prognoses.

Cancer isn’t ultimately a story of death; it’s a story of cells who’ve stubbornly demanded life — at all costs.

Curiously, cells are made to die. There are only so many times they can replicate their DNA before it starts to show signs of wear, and, consequently, only so many times they can replicate themselves. After fifty rounds or so, they’re out.

Cancer, then, isn’t ultimately a story of death; it’s a story of cells who’ve stubbornly demanded life — at all costs. It’s a story of what happens when growth becomes self-sufficient and signals to repress that growth are ignored. It’s what happens when biochemical stress responses kick in, when cells wage war against their own hardwired instincts to self-destruct, and start proliferating like crazy instead. It’s a story of desperation — of new tumors greedily diverting resources from the healthy tissue surrounding them, growing their own network of arteries and veins, feeding. It’s also a story of invasion — “metastasis” — with its own diverse cast of opportunistic characters.

A colorized electron micrograph of a cervical cancer cell. Note the stringy projections of the cytoplasm. These enable the cell to move over tissue, colonizing new regions of the body.

Henrietta had cervical cancer. A tumor the size of a nickel — glistening purple, delicate and bleeding to the touch — was growing in the neck of her womb. It hadn’t been caught in the early stages with a Pap smear (then, a new form of screening which many women, like Henrietta, didn’t take advantage of — and many doctors couldn’t interpret). It hadn’t been caught last year when she delivered her final child. It hadn’t even been caught three months earlier at her last visit to Johns Hopkins. It simply wasn’t there then.

In less time than it takes one of the fastest human cancers to just double in volume, Henrietta’s cancer exploded from a single cell all the way to a full-fledged carcinoma. And that — that was a problem.

“Spreading Like Crabgrass”

Granted, it wasn’t a problem for everyone. To George Gey, a cell biologist working out of a lab on the fifth floor of the Hopkins Dispensary Building, Henrietta’s cancer was actually an immense godsend. The Gey Tissue Culture Laboratory had been trying for nearly a decade to find the sorcerer’s stone of modern science — to sustain a line of human cell culture that would grow and divide indefinitely. Immortal cells.

She was only thirty years old, having already seen too much and too little of life. She had cancer. Cancer. Cancer.

To this end, Dr. Gey became nothing short of a “vulture” (his words) in his pursuit of human specimens that possessed these resilient strains, even roping in colleagues, coworkers, and patients as accessories to his pursuit. There was Dr. Richard TeLinde, nationally recognized expert on cervical cancer and Gey’s personal “dealer” of cervical cancer tissue. There was Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr., the surgeon on duty the day Henrietta began her radiation treatment, acting on TeLinde’s own instructions to retrieve a sample of her cells. And then there was Henrietta herself, falling unconscious, flooded by light, lying on a stainless steel operating table with her feet splayed in stirrups and a team of medical staff hovering around the center of the room.

So much had already changed for her. She was only thirty years old, having already seen too much and too little of life. She had cancer. Cancer. Cancer. And in what must have seemed a breakneck jolt in time, she was here — supine on a rigid, metal bench in a tired room on the second floor, staring up at white gowns, white hats, white masks, white gloves, white faces. She might have allowed herself, then, to be scared.

She experienced here, as she had experienced all her life, no choice.

Wharton, before beginning the procedure, “picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix: one from her tumor, and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby.” These would rest in a glass dish, in the hands of a resident, in the obsessively clean environment of the Gey lab, and — for the cancerous culture that survived — in hospitals and in vitro climates across the world. Cells from Henrietta’s sample stayed alive while she convalesced in Johns Hopkins. They stayed alive two days after she returned home. By the next day, they had doubled. Then doubled again, leaving Gey’s assistants scrambling for four more tubes, then six, to make room for the growing tissue.

A colorized electron micrograph of just-divided HeLa cells.

HeLa culture (a shorthand for Henrietta Lacks) kept on doubling in number every 24 hours. “Spreading like crabgrass,” Gey’s wife once remarked. And Gey himself, dumbfounded, wouldn’t shut up about it.

Life

Before Bill Nye the Science Guy or Cosmos or Nova or The Magic School Bus, boys and girls across America had The Johns Hopkins Science Review. Every Tuesday at 8:30, families would huddle around the small living room TV to watch carnival barkers and glass blowers, to see microscopes and oscilloscopes and fluoroscopes at work. They listened to Wernher von Braun, then a slick-haired 40-year-old with a high, nasal German accent, explain how rockets worked. They watched physicists like Franco Rasetti and Harold Urey and George Gamow and learned about atomic bombs. They even tuned in to the Science Review to witness an actual human birth happen live — all this at a time when the very word “pregnant” was banned on network TV.

It was low-budget. It was gimmicky. It was popular.

In April of 1951, three weeks after Henrietta’s radiation therapy started, George Gey appeared on the Science Review to enthralled audiences up and down the eastern coast. He showed viewers photos of malignant cells under a microscope. He showed films of cells drifting across across the screen, illustrations of cancer emerging from normal tissue. He picked up a pint-sized glass jar, gently jostling it in his hands as they moved, and announced, “Let me show you a bottle in which we have grown massive quantities of cancer cells.” He was expressionless, his back straight and stiff. His eyes darted from the small liquid solution to a camera a few feet in the distance then back again.

Gey went on about cancer research, about how his lab was using cells like these to experiment on treatments to stop cancer — to conquer cancer — once and for all. “It is quite possible that from fundamental studies such as these,” he said, “that we will be able to learn a way by which cancer cells can be completely wiped out.” But they couldn’t do it alone.

Again and again and again, HeLa was the answer.

Often at his own expense, Gey started shipping HeLa cells to researchers in Texas, India, New York, Amsterdam. HeLa cells made their way into the mountains of Chile on mules. They changed hands between doctors and lab technicians. They got stored in cargo holds, kept cool with huge blocks of ice. Wherever Gey flew, HeLa cells flew with him — usually in tubes tucked securely in his shirt pocket.

Jonas Salk administering the new polio vaccine in 1955 — only four years after the first HeLa cells were isolated.

Using these precious samples, scientists could test treatments on human cells without posing harm to human patients. Henrietta’s cells were shot into space to test the effects of zero gravity. Cosmetic companies bought them up by the millions to analyze side effects in their new products. The US military set up flasks of the stuff at atomic test sites with the aim of finding out what radiation at that scale could do to human tissue. Then came polio and, with it, the urgent demand to find a way to safely develop and assess the new Salk vaccine. Again and again and again, HeLa was the answer.

Death

Henrietta’s cells would save the lives of millions, but they’d take her own. And they’d do it without mercy.

“You could hear her sometimes all the way downstairs, hollerin’,” recalled a cousin years later, “‘Oh Lord! Oh Lord! I can’t get no ease!’ Her stomach would be hurtin’ her so bad. ‘Jesus help me! Help me!’”

Her story was spiraling away from her. She knew she was going to die.

Henrietta’s cells were unstoppable, exhibiting the same growth in her as they did in the test tubes; by September 1951 her body was almost entirely consumed. Tumors had grown on her diaphragm, her bladder, her lungs. They had distended her intestines so badly she looked six months pregnant. Her kidneys failed, buckling under the load of toxins accumulated in her blood. Her visits to the Hopkins blood bank were so frequent that she was firmly denied further blood transfusions “until her deficit with the blood bank was made up”.

Howard Jones, the gynecologist who first noticed the mass in her cervix, put it flatly: Henrietta’s cancer “failed to respond to treatment.” Her story was spiraling away from her. She knew she was going to die.

One of the last things she thought about was her children. It was remarkable. Faced by a tragedy that, for her, was sudden and undeserved, she worried only about how they would survive — how they would make it. “Don’t you let anything bad happen to them children when I’m gone.”

Henrietta Lacks’ death certificate

Her sister sat at her bedside, watching tears stream down Henrietta’s face. She knew what had happened to them all after their own mother had died. She knew the grief of her cheating husband. She knew the agony Henrietta had gone through for months on end — how these people treated her. She knew, in some small measure, all Henrietta’s pain.

Now, her voice was a whisper. “You make sure Day takes care of them children.”

On October 4, 1951 at a quarter past midnight, Henrietta was gone. Only HeLa remained.

Immortality

It’s tempting to view Henrietta’s story as only a story of race. Or only a story of medicine. To do so, however, would strip Henrietta of a legacy that she deserves to call her own. It’s her story.

HeLa is murderous. Plain and simple. But without it, we wouldn’t have eradicated polio or been able to study leukemia or tackle AIDS and cancers worldwide. Without HeLa — without Henrietta’s immortal cancerous cells — we wouldn’t have vaccines for COVID-19.

It’s an account of a little girl who seemed to be followed by ghosts at every turn. It starts with her childhood, haunted by the ruins of slavery — ruins left scuttled and abandoned in Lacks Town, and perhaps even forgotten completely in Turner Station. But like all injustice, they never disappeared.

It is an account of informed consent. After all, Henrietta was ill-informed. She never once understood the full extent of her condition, nor was she aware of the steps she could have taken to avoid it. She was denied the education she could’ve gotten, the opportunity she could’ve seized. She was Black. She was a woman. And, in the 1940’s, these were demographics taught to question no one and nothing at all. The Johns Hopkins medical system, structured around racially exclusive policies, took advantage of that.

It is an account of, as Prometheus had warned, the double-edged sword of the gods. HeLa is murderous. Plain and simple. It was swifter than ever before documented. It was exacting. But without it, we wouldn’t have eradicated polio or been able to study leukemia or tackle AIDS and cancers worldwide. Without HeLa — without Henrietta’s immortal cancerous cells — we wouldn’t have vaccines for COVID-19. It’s hard to imagine how one man’s theft would prove to be one of the most consequential actions in modern science.

What’s not hard to imagine, however, is that Henrietta received no credit. Instead, false pseudonyms for HeLa floated around scientific literature for years: Helen Lane, Helen Larson. The truth didn’t come out until the seventies. Before then, the world — even the Lacks family — was in the dark.

Today, you can buy a frozen vial of her cells from the American Type Culture Collection — one of Gey’s final works before his own death from cancer — for over $500 a pop. The cell culture industry has made inestimable billions from their sale and distribution. But her own children? Her grandchildren? Not a dime. Instead, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation has largely relied on the charity of individuals moved by HeLa’s story and contributions, on bitter lawsuits waged against businesses and research institutions unwilling to pay their fair share.

Taken in the 1940’s, long before she knew about what was growing inside her, this famous photo gives us a glimpse of what Henrietta really looked like. She was short and slender. Her lips, painted here a deep red, always hinted at a grin. Her eyes were playful. Young. Hopeful.

The first real effort towards financial reparation towards the Lackses rolled out only two years ago. Henrietta would’ve been 100.

References + Further Reading

Sources listed in order of appearance.

Image Credits

Sources listed in order of appearance.

--

--

--

Student. Writer. Aspiring Innovator.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Do you still smile under your mask?

Welcome to My stories😊

Am I a good enough cat parent?

Inspirational Quote for July 1

Inspirational Quote for July 1

Koi Metaverse

Bughouse #5

Single Saiyaan Lyrics — Sukriti-Prakriti | Parth Samthaan

Moving Away

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Michael McNeil

Michael McNeil

Student. Writer. Aspiring Innovator.

More from Medium

Dementia Demensions

A Note from the Underground

Why you should quit religion and better do drugs instead.

Greek mythology; a change I’d like to see