This week, the Virginia General Assembly honored Henrietta Lacks, whose legacy to medicine lives on 60 years after her death.
Lacks’ story has been chronicled most recently Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. In the story of a poor Southern tobacco farmer, Henrietta Lacks, whose cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine.
Skloot’s book has taken on a life it own, receiving widespread critical acclaim and becoming a New York Times best-seller. Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. After her passing, Lacks’ cells were taken without her knowledge. Retreived in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital—her cells became one of the most important resources in modern medicine. The cells, which scientist refer to a ‘HeLa cells” are considered the first “immortal” human cells. Grown in culture, the cells are still alive today.
Lacks’ cells have been vital in advance in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. The story of Henrietta Lacks is also the story of her family who had questions about their mother’s legacy in medicine and raised questions within the African-American community about the role Blacks have played in biomedical research.
Beyond her contribution to medicine, Lacks’ has left a more important gift to us- a question: who owns our bodies?
For black women, it is a question that still rages on. From anti-abortion ads to magazine editorials, the black women’s body is often used to represent ideals that aren’t our own.
Henrietta’s legacy is in the fact that while she did not condone its use, she proved a colored woman was made of healing. I believe that we are all made of the same thing and blessed with the power of choice. Whether our cells or our thoughts, Lacks is a reminder of that we are women with stories worth telling again.