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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Henrietta Lacks: The Most Influential Person in Medicine

Thanks to social media, Black History Month has become more engaging and has uncovered stories that you probably never learned in grade school. Just last week one of my connections shared the following story about Henrietta Lacks on their timeline.  

*The following appeared on Facebook and edited for clarity

Lacks was a Black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died in 1951 at the age of  31. 

Prior to her death, a doctor treating her in the "colored wards" at Johns Hopkins, took a piece of her tumor without telling her because he realized that her cells, unlike everyone else’s, never died. These cells named "HeLa" after Henrietta Lacks, have been replicated millions of times to create an endless supply of “immortal cells.” Before this endless supply, scientists spent more time trying to keep cells alive than performing actual research. 

HeLa cells were used to determine that humans have 46 chromosomes and in 1952, the worst year of the polio epidemic, Dr. Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to develop a vaccine for Polio. 

Other HeLa cells have been used as the basic cells that established the process of cloning, in-vitro fertilization, DNA repair, gene mapping and chemotherapy. 

Although pharmaceutical companies have made billions of dollars from replicating and selling HeLa cells, Henrietta’s family has never been compensated. It wasn’t until recently that they even knew her cells were being used. 

In 2010, Rebecca Skloot wrote the book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, detailing her life. Oprah Winfrey in conjunction with HBO is developing a film project based on Skloot’s book. 

In 2013, a settlement with the family has given them some control over the use of HeLa cells, but still no financial reward. Lacks is arguably the most influential person in medicine that the world doesn’t even know.

Do you a story to share about an influential person who paved the way for Black Americans? E-mail your submission to or leave your views in the comment box below.

Be sure to follow Artz of Culturez on Facebook to keep track of stories and little known facts that may not be covered here on the blog.

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