Henrietta Lacks: The Mother of Modern Medicine

Henrietta Lacks, the rightful “mother of modern medicine,” has finally received overdue justice for her timeless contribution to science. After unwittingly having her cancer cells extracted back in 1951, Henrietta’s cells have gone on to reproduce indefinitely, laying the groundwork for massive discoveries in science and medicine ever since. Her family has finally reached a settlement with the biotech company responsible for extracting her cells against any of their knowledge. 

She was a tobacco farmer in Virginia before moving to Maryland with her family, where she worked at a Steel Mill near Baltimore. She was a typical American woman, hustling and bustling at work and tending to her family, all while trying to squeeze some joy into each day. 

One day, during a routine exam, Henrietta’s doctor discovered a large tumor, resulting in her spending her last year of life in and out of John Hopkins Hospital. Despite her unshakeable optimism, Henrietta succumbed to her illness in late 1951 at the budding age of 31, leaving 5 children behind.

Throughout the course of treatment, Henrietta’s cancer cells were extracted, examined, and eventually used without her or her family's knowledge. An outside biotech lab, Thermo Fisher Scientific, was responsible for this breach of privacy and respect. The aptly named “HeLa cells” have continued to serve millions of medical professionals and their patients: producing life-changing medical advancements worldwide.

The nonconsensual use of Lack’s cells was a physical violation and an outright robbery. HeLa cells have provided a solid foundation for modern scientific discoveries such as vaccines and treatments for various ailments from COVID to cancer. Countless lives have been saved by Henrietta’s expansive cell line. Her cells have even helped scientists observe the way gravity (or a lack thereof!) interacts with cells in outer space. 

After uncovering the vast influence of Henrietta Lacks’ cells, Lacks' family pursued legal action in 2021 against the biotech company. As of the summer of 2023, the family has finally settled in court, receiving the justice they deserve while continuing to graciously share Henrietta’s legacy with the world. Since the settlement with Thermo Fisher Scientific, Henrietta’s estate has filed suit against California firm, Ultragenyx, alleging the company has “made a fortune” from producing using Lacks’ cells.