The Truth is Out There: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Hela Cells | (c) Omar Quintero |

There was a moment during The X-Files season ten premiere that made me sit up and cheer. It wasn’t seeing Mulder or Scully’s face again after all these years. It wasn’t about seeing an alien space ship crash, or an alien autopsy. The moment didn’t include explosions or romantic tension between our beloved protagonists. It was a moment that involved a single name:

Henrietta Lacks.

Henrietta and David Lacks | Photo provided by the Lacks family |
Henrietta and David Lacks. Photo provided to the Smithsonian Institute by the Lacks family.

There’s a good chance your life has already been touched in some way by Henrietta Lacks, though you may not know it. Before her name escaped Fox Mulder’s lips in the premiere, you may have been just as ignorant of Henrietta Lacks’ unwitting contribution to science and medicine as her own family—and Lacks herself.

Born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, Lacks was a woman—a mother, a wife, a sister, a farmer, a human being—but for the longest time and long after cervical cancer took her life in 1951, she’d literally been reduced to her parts: the first two letters of her first and last name, stuck on the side of the petri dishes and test tubes that contained her immortal cells. As patient at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only nearby hospital that treated Black people, samples of Lacks’ cells—both healthy and cancerous—were taken without her consent, or perhaps even her understanding, and passed on to Dr. George Otto Gey, who discovered their unique properties. Unlike other cell cultures, Lacks’ cells continued to live and grow. In biomedical terms, this was the jackpot. In 1955, the cells were successfully cloned, and the HeLa immortal cell line has gone on to be used in all kinds of research and experimentation, and was a key factor in the creation of the polio vaccine. Scientists have grown over 20 tonnes of Lacks’ cells and there are over 11,000 patents in place. Need to purchase HeLa cells for cancer research or gene mapping or to test human sensitivity to cosmetics or to formulate a new vaccine? Contact your local distributor for pricing!

Her cells have taken on a new life of their own, having mutated to the point where some scientists question if they can even be considered human anymore. But the source of those cells is and always will be a human being. Her name is Henrietta Lacks. And she has a family that, until the last few decades, had no idea all of this was going on and received no compensation for the cells harvested from Lacks without her knowledge, much less her consent.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot | Crown Publishing Group“Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore!  I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”
Deborah Lacks from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Finally, Henrietta Lacks’ story is being told and she is getting the credit she deserves. There have been celebrations in her honour, HBO, Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball have plans for a film based on Skloot’s book, Lacks is recognized by Smithsonian Institute and The National Foundation for Cancer Research, and now Fox Mulder has made her name part of pop culture.

The X-Files remains a science fiction television show meant to entertain, but with the mere mention of her name, along with the 40 year long Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, the new season has firmly grounded itself in reality. “I was wrong,” Mulder explains emphatically to Scully, in that heated way fans have come to know so well. The X-Files aren’t about alien abductions and what the aliens have been doing to humans, but what humans—the government—is doing to humans. The world will never forget the atrocities performed on human beings  in Nazi concentration camps, but much like the German residents who had no idea such things were occurring near their own villages and towns, far too many people remain ignorant of the violations against human bodies—and, in the case of Henrietta Lacks and the men of the Tuskegee Study and so many others, against black human bodies—that have gone on right in North America. All in the name of science.

What path The X-Files takes in this six-part tenth season has yet to be seen, but now, it too has built its story upon Henrietta Lacks. There is no denying the truth in her existence or the unethical practices of  human experimentation without consent. HeLa cells have proven their immortality. Let’s make sure that the memory of Henrietta Lacks’ remains immortal too.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.