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  • Writer's pictureKennedy Samaire

KK in Their Shoes ‣ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Jenny's Note: For Black History Month, Kennedy honored Henrietta Lacks - the woman behind the immortal HeLa cell line. And I've gotta say, this was one of the most research intensive projects we've done! A forty chapter bio-novel, the adapted movie, and dozes of articles and TedTalks, all of which were chock full of scientific jargon a bit advance for forth grade. Just like Skloot, we set on to learn about Henrietta, but ended up enamored with the strength shown by her daughter, Debra Lacks. This family is such an integral part of the world's medical and ethical advancement, and the very impetus of informed consent. If you don't know there names, read along, because you should.


Do you know who Henrietta Lacks is? Probably not. What about HeLA Cells? Maybe. Henrietta Lacks is the "donor" of the HeLa cells. Her cells were used for many things, such as the Polio Vaccine and sending the first people to space. They've been exposed to nuclear toxins and were the first cells to be mapped. Also, scientists studied the Human Papillomavirus Invection, or more commonly referred to as HPV, as well as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, using the HeLa Cells. Henrietta's cells are even used for developing potential cures for cancer and much, much more.

Henrietta Lacks was born on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia to John Randall Pleasant 1 and Eliza Lacks-Pleasant. She had four brothers; Henry Pleasant, Lawrence Pleasant, Charles Pleasant, and John Randall II; along with two sisters, Lillian Pleasant and Gladys Pleasant-Lacks. She was known to be kind, nurturing, and have the spirit of a nurse. She had a total of five children: Elsie, who died at the age of fifteen in an Institution for the Negro Insane called "Crownsville Hospital Center," Lawrence, David (Dae) II, Deboroah, and Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman, who was born Joseph and was convicted of murder after pleading guilty out of his own free will and was sent to prison for seven years. Sadly, all her children were partially deaf, and Elsie was most likely put in the institution partially because of being completely deaf. This was because they had inherited Syphillis from their parents and suffered certain cellular defects.

A cell is the basic unit of life. One organ may be made up of a thousand cells, and others, millions. Henrietta's were "special" because they were able to live and grow outside of their human body, and continue to multiply if they have space todo so. What really fascinates me is that her cells helped with the Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's usually affects people in their sixties. Her cells helped discover how Parkinson's disease spreads and is genetically created.

When Miss Henrietta's cells were taken, she did not give her consent, which means they were taken from her without her knowledge. This wasn't okay because they basically robbed her of her cells. I think that if they were to ask Henrietta or the family and they said "yes" then, and only then, would it be morally okay for them to take her cells. Do you know what the word 'ethics' means? It means, "the moral correctness of specified conducts." In other words, this wasn't an ethical medical process because they did not receive her "informed consent." Regardless, this is how there came to be HeLa cells, and the world is a much better place because of them.

All in all, I learned a lot about an extraordinary woman that has made so many of our medical treatments and advancements possible. I had never considered the moral principles concerning these issues before and learning about Henrietta completely changed my point of view. Also, it got me more interested in HeLa cells, and human biology in general. After reading the book, watching the movie, and researching several other sources, I believe we must make the HeLa fiasco right and give the family what they deserve. I also think the government needs to take immediate steps to ensure patients are treated fairly, that their right to privacy is maintained, and that the issue of tissue rights is addressed, with the donor being protected and compensated for their contribution to science.

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