*Before 2010, hardly anyone had heard of Henrietta Lacks’ phenomenal story. This was the year when ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot was released and managed to become an instant New York Times Best Seller.
This biography narrated the story of an African-American woman who was born on a tobacco farm in Virginia in the 1920s. She had revolutionized the medical research industry by saving the lives of millions. This wasn’t even the catch – she had done so without ever knowing that she was responsible for this brilliant outcome.
Why Is She The Mother of Modern Medicine?
1. Henrietta Lacks Died from a Cancer – One That Also Made Her Immortal
At the age of 31, Lacks was in Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital – which helped Black patients in segregated wards. Here she found that a cancerous tumor was growing in her cervix at a very alarming rate.
At that time, such cancers would prevail over their victims and doctors would mostly just gather research samples – both normal and infected. When Lacks couldn’t take it anymore, she got herself admitted and her doctor extracted 2 dime-sized pieces of tissue from her infected cervix and her healthy organ. These samples were then used to create the first-ever batch of immortal cells.
Lacks died from the cancer but her cells lived on.
2. Her Cells Have Made Countless Medical Breakthroughs
Her cells were named HeLa after her new name Helen Lane and they had helped revolutionize the medical research industry. Her immortal cells had been used to make the first-ever vaccine for polio in 1952 when the disease had swept the entire nation.
Her cells have also been taken into space to test what zero gravity can do to human cells. Other than this, her cells were used to identify all the abnormalities of the chromosomes – which also helped in the mapping of the human genome. Her cells had also aided in the study of the human papillomavirus, which is more commonly known as the HPV.
HPV also happens to be the same virus that creates cervical cancer that had killed Lacks in the first place. Finally, her cells helped engineers and chemists at Penn State University when they had been implanted with the help of advanced technologies to cure cancer.
Lacks herself never knew that her doctor had taken her cells (neither did her family) even though they managed to live way past her death. Her family also never received any compensation, but her spirit continues to live on.