Henrietta Lacks


Henrietta Lacks in a 1940s photo. (Lacks family/Henrietta Lacks Foundation/AP)

Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished tobacco farmer from Southern Virginia, moved to Maryland with her husband, but became ill and was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in January 1951. Diagnosed with cervical cancer, she died nine months later.

What is significant about Henrietta was not what she did but what she was. After her death, Dr. Grey Otto received a section of her tumor to study and found an that her cells were unusual. Most cells succumb within a few days, Henrietta’s did not. Her invaluable cell line later was called the HeLa Cells and has been used for tens of thousands of medical patients. Jonas Salk, famous for his polio vaccine, used her cells for his research. Henrietta’s remarkable cells have helped save millions of lives across the world.


This article is part of a "Forgotten by History" collection. You can find a complete list of these people here.

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