Henrietta Lacks was an African-American tobacco farmer born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, United States to John Randall Pleasant and Eliza Lacks Pleasant. In 1924, Eliza died giving birth to her 10th child.
After Eliza’s death, John Randall and their children moved to Clover, Virginia, USA where the children were distributed among relatives. Henrietta ended up with Eliza’s father Thomas “Tommy” Henry Lacks in a two-story log cabin that was once the slave quarters on the plantation that had been owned by Eliza’s white grandfather and uncle.
In the cabin, Henrietta shared a room with her first cousin David “Day” Lacks. Their mothers were sisters.
Day became Henrietta’s husband. They had five children together.
Henrietta’s cancer cells are the source of the first immortalized human cell line called the HeLa cell line, which is one of the most important cell lines in medical research. Here are 13 more things about her:
- She was five years younger than Day. She was 5’0″ tall and her shoe size was 6.
- In 1935, she gave birth to her son Lawrence Lacks.
- In 1939, she gave birth to her daughter Elsie Lacks, who had epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Elsie died in 1955.
- She and Day were Catholic. On April 10, 1941, they got married in Halifax County, Virginia. Shortly after the wedding, they left their tobacco farm in Virginia and moved to Turner Station, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA.
- In 1947, she gave birth to David “Sonny” Lacks Jr.
- In 1949, she gave birth to Deborah Lacks. Deborah was later known as Deborah Lacks Pullum and died in 2009.
- In November 1950, she gave birth to Joseph Lacks at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Joseph later changed his name to Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman after converting to Islam.
- After giving birth to Joseph, she had a severe hemorrhage. On January 29, 1951, she went back to John Hopkins Hospital. Her doctor Howard W. Jones took a biopsy of a mass found on her cervix for laboratory laboratory testing. Soon after, she was told that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. As an inpatient, she was treated with radium tube inserts. Without her permission or knowledge, two samples, a cancerous tissue and a healthy tissue, were taken from her cervix during her treatments and given to cancer researcher George Otto Gey. The cells from the cancerous sample eventually became known as the HeLa immortal cell line. On August 8, 1951, she went back to Johns Hopkins Hospital for a routine treatment session and asked to be admitted due to continued severe abdominal pain. She received blood transfusions and remained at the hospital until her death on October 4, 1951. She died at the age of 31. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Halifax County and her exact burial location is unknown.
- In 1970, physicians discovered that she was misdiagnosed in 1951 and she actually had an adenocarcinoma and not a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix.
- In 2010, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research established the annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series to honor her and the HeLa cells’ global impact on medicine and research.
- In 2011, Morgan State University in Baltimore granted her a posthumous honorary doctorate in public service and the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington, USA became the first organization to memorialize her publicly by naming a school in her honor. The district named its new high school focused on medical careers the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School.
- In 2014, she was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2017, a minor planet in the main asteroid belt was named 359426 Lacks in her honor and HBO aired the film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” based on Rebecca Skloot‘s book of the same name with Renee Elise Goldsberry playing her, Roger Robinson as Day and Oprah Winfrey as their daughter Deborah.
- In 2020, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2021, the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act of 2019 became law and the University of Bristol in Bristol, England, United Kingdom commissioned a statue of her created by Helen Wilson-Roe to be displayed on the campus, which became the first statue of a black woman made by a black woman for a public space in the U.K. Also in 2021, the World Health Organization honored her.