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The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

How one woman's cells changed scientific thinking forever.

By Rebecca Skloot
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The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a poor tobacco farmer who died from cervical cancer, and her cell strand, HeLa, which scientists used to develop a cure for polio and other diseases. In a fascinating and revealing investigation, author Rebecca Skloot uncovers the history of Henrietta and her family, of the exploitation of black Americans by the medical industry, and of Henrietta’s immortal cells.

Key idea 1 of 11

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black American woman who died of an extremely aggressive form of cancer.

On August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, a small girl who would change medical science forever was born. Her name was Henrietta.

Like most of her family, young Henrietta helped out on their tobacco farm, harvesting the crop and hauling the leaves to South Boston to be sold.

When she wasn’t working, young Henrietta played with her cousin, David Lacks – nicknamed Day.

Henrietta married Day when she was 20 and the couple soon began having children. But these were difficult times for small farmers, and the family were struggling financially. So Henrietta and Day decided to move to Sparrows Point, near Baltimore.

A decade later, in early 1951, Henrietta walked into the designated coloreds-only examination room of Johns Hopkins gynecology center. She’d discovered a lump on her cervix.

After doctors took a sample and rushed it to the pathology lab for diagnosis, they sent Henrietta home. There, she quickly returned to her usual daily routine: looking after her children, cooking for her family and keeping the house in order.

For a while at least, life continued as normal.

Then her biopsy results arrived: Henrietta had epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, stage I.

At the time, Johns Hopkins were using radium – a radioactive material – to treat cervical cancer. But while radium is extremely effective at killing cancer cells, this comes at a cost: it also destroys any other cells it comes into contact with. Indeed, radium is so powerful that, in high doses, it can even burn the patient’s skin.

Giving her official consent for any treatments or surgery the doctors deemed necessary, Henrietta was once again led to the Johns Hopkins ward for colored women.

There, Henrietta endured hours upon hours of excruciating radium exposure – the first of many treatments she’d receive over the course of the year.

Even though these treatments were intensive, to the extent that much of her body was visibly burned, they were ultimately ineffective.

Henrietta Lacks died on October 4, 1951.

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