January 29, 1951, Lacks went to John Hopkins Hospital because she felt a “knot” inside of her. When she informed her cousins, they just assumed she was pregnant and ended up being correct. It wasn’t until after giving birth that they knew something really was wrong. Henrietta was bleeding profusely. She was tested for syphillis and when it came back negative Lacks was referred to John Hopkins (the only hospital near that would treat black patients). Howard W. Jones, her new doctor examined the lump on her cervix, cut off a small piece and sent it to the pathology lab. Soon after, Henrietta was informed she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix.
“Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn in place. After several days in place, the tubes were removed and she was discharged from Johns Hopkins with instructions to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up. During her radiation treatments for the tumor, two samples of Henrietta’s cervix were removed a healthy part and a cancerous part without her permission. The cells from her cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey. These cells eventually became the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research.”
So at this point you’re probably thinking “cool, big deal…..HeLa cells” right?
Well as a scientist HeLa cells are the best dang thing since slice bread. HeLa cells have become one of the most important tools for medicine, vital for developing a polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and much more. Even if you don’t know what any of that is, trust me when I tell you that it’s something great!
Unfortunately, in significant pain and no longer seeing improvement, Lacks returned to Hopkins on August 8 for trestment sessions. She remained at the hospital until the day of her death. Henrietta Lacks died of uremic poisoning October 4, 1951, she was 31 years old. When an autopsy was done, it showed that the cancer had spread and taken over her entire body.
Henrietta Lacks cells were purchased and sold by the billions, yet for years she remained completely unknown. Ironically , considering all the medical advances that were made from her cells the Lacks family couldn’t afford health insurance.
She was buried without a tombstone in a family cemetery in Lackstown. It was the name of the land that had been held by the black Lacks family since they received it from the white Lacks family, who had owned the ancestors of the black Lacks when slavery was legal. In 2010, Dr. Roland Pattillo of the Morehouse School of Medicine donated a headstone for Lacks after reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
“Henrietta Lacks, August 01, 1920 – October 04, 1951.
In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many.
Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.
Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family.”