In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Hospital is considered to be one of the top three hospitals in the United States. They have performed hundreds of experimental procedures, and they saved countless lives. Back in the midst of the Jim Crow era in the 1950s, Johns Hopkins was one of the few hospitals that offered another service. It was a medical facility where poor people of color could get medical treatment and care.
In February 1951, a young black woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital for her first appointment. She reported that she had noticed a small lump when she was taking a bath, and she had been bleeding from her pelvic area even though it wasn’t the correct time of the month.
Originally from Virginia, Henrietta was a 31-year-old woman that had left behind the tobacco fields where her ancestors spent their lives working. Henrietta and her husband moved to Baltimore in hopes of finding better jobs during the war. They had five children, and Henrietta first noticed the irregular bleeding after she had her last child.
A gynecologist by the name of Dr. Howard Jones found a troubling growth on Henrietta’s cervix.
He took a tissue sample and ordered a biopsy of the mass that he sent to Dr. George Gey. A few days later, the results showed that Henrietta had a malignant tumor on her cervix. Back in the 1950s, cancer treatment was very different than today’s methods. Instead of using medications to target and destroy the cancerous cells, doctors did what they widely considered to be the best treatment option at the time and put radium capsules around her cervix.
Henrietta continued to go to Johns Hopkins Hospital routinely for her treatments, but she didn’t tell her family about her diagnosis. As the treatment continued and the cancer spread, she started to have trouble hiding the pain she felt. Family members would hear her say:
“Oh, Lord, oh, Lord, I can’t get no ease! Jesus, help me, Jesus!”
Henrietta’s condition continued to deteriorate, but Dr. Gey noticed something odd when he was looking at a sample of her tissue. He found that all of the other cell samples he collected from patients died so fast that he couldn’t study them. However, Henrietta’s were starting to multiply at a very rapid pace. However, this also meant that the cancerous cells in Henrietta’s body also started to multiply at a very rapid pace. So fast, in fact, that the radium wasn’t able to kill them. Just a short seven months after Henrietta came to Johns Hopkins Hospital for her first treatment, she passed away.
Her family mourned her death, but Henrietta’s cells gave doctors remarkable new insights. They named them “HeLa” cells.
They used the HeLa cells to study how to destroy cancerous cells, find out how the cells grew, and to learn more about the human genome. HeLa cell samples got sent all over the United States by Dr. Gey. Jonas Salk used them to create the polio vaccine.
In spite of the fact that Henrietta’s remarkable cells were a source for great excitement in the medical community and causing breakthroughs, Henrietta’s family remained in the dark. It wasn’t until three decades later in the 1970s when researchers called them and asked them for blood samples did the family find out the truth.
Henrietta’s cells contributed to several medical breakthroughs that saved hundreds of lives, but the way the doctors came by the cells in the first place is highly controversial. The Lacks family grew concerned that the doctors took and used Henrietta’s cells without her permission. They were angry that people were making “billions and billions of dollars” while they couldn’t afford insurance coverage.
The concept of informed consent, just like cancer treatment was very different in the 1950s. Cervical cancer was killing up to 15,000 women per year when Henrietta came to Johns Hopkins Hospital. The current director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research said that,
“Researchers got a little carried away with science and sometimes forgot the patient.”
It’s still not known if researchers involved with the HeLa cells used medical terms that Henrietta’s family didn’t understand, or whether the researchers tried to hide what they were doing behind jargon. Either way, Henrietta Lacks is gaining the recognition she so rightly deserves.
In 2017, Oprah Winfrey starred in an HBO-produced film that detailed Henrietta’s story, and there is now a portrait of Henrietta hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.