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The Unintended Immortality of Henrietta Lacks

The Unintended Immortality of Henrietta Lacks

Dear Students, 

Most of us know about famous Black scientists such as Mae Jemmison, George Washington Carver, and Betty Harris, but there is one Black woman who inadvertently revolutionized science and stirred a large conversation about scientific ethics: Henrietta Lacks

Ms. Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951 and was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. Up until that point, all cells biopsied from patients died in the research lab, but something about Henrietta's cells lived. These cells, called HeLa cells, revolutionized knowledge about how cells grow, divide, live in extreme climates, and are used in nanotechnology. Her cells survive to this day. 

However, these cells were taken without her knowledge or consent. The Lacks family did not know about the existence of her cells until 1975, much less how Henrietta's cells were part of a multi-million-dollar business by that point.

For me, the story of Henrietta Lacks holds two important lessons:

  • There are real people behind every human biological sample in the laboratory, and as scientists we must take that into consideration.
  • Communication is key in science, and not just the act of saying words. Communication also means listening, partnering in a meaningful way with people affected by the science we do, and ensuring understanding.
You can learn more about Henrietta Lacks' legacy on the Henrietta Lacks Foundation webpage.

Dr. Vanden Bout

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Thursday, 08 December 2022

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