Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman, a tobacco farmer. She knew that something was wrong when she went to seek health care at the free “colored” ward of John Hopkins Hospital. She was diagnosed with a highly aggressive cervical cancer, and during her treatment — without her consent or knowledge — they cut out a piece of her. The cancer cells they cut are still alive today, are growing as I write this, are growing as you read it, are being bought, being sold, and being used for so many different kinds of research, I doubt there’s anyone who could name them all.
Henrietta Lacks died an excruciatingly painful death in 1951. And her cells have helped to develop seemingly endless medical advancements since then, and continue to develop them now. But just like Henrietta Lacks was never told that they cut out a piece of her cervix, her family was never told that here cells were still alive. The Lacks family only learned through a long series of events over 20 years later. Though those cells have made billions of dollars for various companies — both directly through the selling of HeLa to researchers, and indirectly through the selling of medicines and treatments HeLa has been integral in developing — they have not made a cent for the Lacks family. Indeed, at the time the book was written, many of Henrietta’s children and grandchildren continued to struggle financially, and several did not have health insurance to access the care that only exists because their mother and grandmother died.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot and released in 2010, is about all of this.