The Immortal Cells- Racial Injustice in the Medical Field

By: Anna Boyd

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman living in the 1950’s when she was diagnosed with a sever case of cervical cancer. She sought for treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital located in Baltimore Maryland. She was being treated by Doctor George Grey. Dr. Grey took healthy and cancerous tissues cells from Lacks to test on. At this point in time no human cells had survived in a lab setting but her cells were different. Her cells we called HeLa cells and were used to run tests to help find a cure to her type of cancer. Unfortunately, after many failed treatments Henrietta passed away from her diagnosis. However, her cells were labeled as immortal and lived on.

Henrietta’s husband and family were completely unaware that her cells were taken and being used. The doctors at Hopkins fought to have an autopsy done to Henrietta and assured her husband that the results could help their children. In her autopsy white limps were found in her chest showing that her cancer had spread. Her family didn’t find out until 1973 almost 25 years after her death that her cells had been taken and a part of her was still alive.

Her cells helped many scientists open many doors for research for disease and genetics, new treatments and vaccines were created. Dr. Grey gave out HeLa cells to any of researcher that requested them at no charge. Her cells began being massed produced. Her family had no idea and wasn’t paid or given the light of day. This brought up the issue of black patients being mistreated by white doctors.

A foundation was created in Henrietta’s name to help other people that made contributions to medical research without knowing. This same foundation put Lack’s family through school to go into the medical field. The following quote from Deborah Lacks Henrietta’s daughter plays a huge role in this foundation being created, “but I always thought it was strange, if our mothers’ cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors,” Deborah Lacks. Deborah fought for the inequality of her mothers’ cells doing so much good and her family was struggling so much.

On October 4, 2021, the estate of Lack’s sued the pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific, for selling HeLa cells. The family is accusing them of knowing her cells were stolen and selling them anyway. “Thermo Fisher Scientific has known that HeLa cells were stolen from Ms. Lacks and chose to use her body for profit anyway,” the lawsuit from the Lack’s estate.

The Lack’s family’s main goal is to fight the injustice that black people face in the medical field. “The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks represents the unfortunately common struggle experienced by Black people throughout history” the lawsuit from the estate says. They do everything they can to help those individuals that are dying at the hands of others due to their skin color. They are helping to revitalize a movement toward racial justice and reforms.

Henrietta Lacks

Categories: Featured, STEM

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