In honor of Black History Month, I have chosen to profile a “real-life superhero.” At a recent event, I was introduced to realtor Arlette Lacks.
I asked her, “By any chance, are you related to Henrietta?”
Her response took me by surprise – “
She was my great aunt!
I'm always amazed when these “brush with history” moments occur.
Here I was, talking to the direct relative of one of my heroes –
Henrietta is the "mother" of HeLa, the first immortal cell line which helped us
cure polio, study human genetics and make numerous other scientific breakthroughs. While receiving radiation for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins
in 1951, Henrietta’s cells were harvested without her knowledge
and then used for tissue culture research by Dr. George Gey.
Her cells, which Dr. Gey named
were unique because unlike others, Henrietta's didn't die.
Instead, they flourished in a petri dish, growing at an astonishing rate.
Dr. Gey publicized and then sent her remarkable HeLa cells
to researchers around the world.
Even today, cell culture labs everywhere
still possess and use millions, or even billions,
of Henrietta’s cells for their ongoing research.
Sadly, Henrietta died from her cancer and
was buried by family members in an unmarked grave.
Although HeLa cells are considered one of
the most important innovations of the 21
neither Henrietta nor her family received any
financial compensation for her life-changing contribution.
Superheroes are not just found in comic books or on the big screen.
Henrietta was a simple human being whose super power
was to irrevocably and positively alter the course
of scientific discovery and modern medicine
for all mankind.
Hail Henrietta Lacks!
Incredible, infinite, immortal superhero
who continues to touch lives everywhere
and make our world
a safer and better place to live.
For a deeper dive into this fascinating historical figure,
check out the film
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne,
based on Rebecca Skloot’s biography of the same name (2010).