Unknown/and/Unjust: The/Infamous/Tale/of Science’s Biggest Contributor
By Chika Chima
Eastern Technical High School
Henrietta Lacks was the most mysterious figure in scientific history. Her cells were
spread across the world in different labs conjuring up medical discoveries and insight into the fragility of the human body. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer but later passed due to the damaging radiation treatments she received overtime. But what makes this tale so strange is the fact that her contributions were made in secret, her identity unknown to the public, without the consent of her family or Mrs. Lacks herself. However, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells have greatly impacted the way we use modern medicine, which compels her legacy to be recognized
for all of human history.
The significance of her cells is that they’re immortal. It was later discovered that this was due to an abundance of the enzyme telomerase which enabled her cells to continue regenerating forever. With this characteristic, scientists were able to use her cells and culture them to create innovative vaccines and find new discoveries within human body systems. These discoveries included the polio vaccine, a disease that devastated the U.S towards the end of 1951. Her DNA also helped map the human genome which helped us learn about chromosomes and how many pairs each individual possesses. This gave insight into different chromosomal disorders like Down’s Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis. She also gave modern scientists a better understanding of HIV/AIDS, general cell knowledge, and furthered cancer research. The cells were even sent up into space and nuclear testing sites to see how humans would be affected dissimilar gravity pressures and by radiation. Mrs. Lacks was unaware of the sacrifice she was making, but she saved millions of lives through her gifts to science.
The legacy of Henrietta Lacks is one that demands to be heard. For too long, her identity was suppressed by scientists that were keen on making discoveries without stopping to acknowledge the woman behind the HeLa cells. She was the solution to the polio epidemic. This epidemic sparked fear and restlessness in the heart of Americans everywhere. Schools were even closed from the distress, and everyone yearned for a vaccine. Centers were established to fight against this sweeping catastrophe. Take the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, for instance.
This charity was created by President Franklin Roosevelt, who too was affected by that paralyzing disease. Scientists worked tirelessly to reach a solution, but the cells they were using were from monkeys, which were killed in the process of conducting neutralization tests. HeLa cells were introduced and not only survived long enough to run tests, but they were also the most susceptible to the polio virus compared to other cultured cells in existence at the time. People of the world today may not fully understand the gravity of the situation of what it was like then, with such a devastating virus as polio, but it was because of Mrs. Lacks’ unique DNA makeup
that ensured us in the modern day to never have to face that type of reality. Yes, it was the scientists who were hard at work, but they wouldn’t have accomplished anything without HeLa cells, without Mrs. Lacks which is why her name mustn’t ever be forgotten.
During this era of medical breakthroughs and advancements using HeLa cells, many people benefitted—not only the millions of lives saved from HeLa research, but the careers of many scientists were started with her cells. The HeLa cell line is now a billion-dollar industry, meaning many people are making money off her. George Gey became famous and was a household name during his era with his name plastered across every media headline. The HeLa cell research solidified his career within the industry. But with all this fame he still encouraged the suppression of Henrietta Lacks’ true identity. Roland H. Burg was an officer at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and wanted to publish Mrs. Lacks’ name in an article, but Dr. Gey allegedly refused. It was only later, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, that he allowed her name to be released. The achievements of black people were once again swept under the rug. As a young black woman, her story is close to home. It happens so often that black Americans have no knowledge of their historical contributions in our own country. We have a right to be heard, to be acknowledged in the world for our deeds and sacrifices that don’t just include slavery. Mrs. Lacks’ legacy is significant; her story is a cautionary tale of the evils of past medical practices and African Americans, but it is also unique to how her genetic makeup was revolutionary in the scientific field.
The public turned a blind eye and never considered who the cells originated from, and it was mesmerized by the sensationalized stories of “immortality”. With all the commotion around the cells, Mrs. Lacks’ family became the target, especially her daughter, Deborah Lacks. All the stress that followed prompted her to break out into hives and suffer a stroke. Her family was greatly affected by her loss and suffered enough pain from the all parties involved that caused their strife: from the scientists who kept Mrs. Lacks’ cells a secret, the reporters, the counterfeit lawyer Keenan Cofield who turned on them, and Victor McKusick who exploited them for blood samples. They deserve the legacy of their mother to be celebrated after years of being tormented.
Henrietta Lacks is an anomaly. During her time, no one would've figured that a black woman, close in ancestry to slaves, would contribute so much to science. She established careers and built industries through her DNA alone. Her sacrifice calls for reparations for not just her name but her family’s wellbeing. The pain they endured shall not go unnoticed. The legacy of Henrietta Lacks is more than just her cells, it’s her character, her superhero-like qualities. Her impact is eternal; it lives on forever through the lives she helped which calls for the remembrance of her journey – not Helen Lane’s not HeLa, but Henrietta Lacks’.