Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on Aug. 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, to Eliza and Johnny Pleasant.
Her family is uncertain how her name changed from Loretta to Henrietta, but she was nicknamed Hennie.
When Lacks was four years old in 1924, her mother died giving birth to her tenth child.
Unable to care for the children alone after his wife’s death, Lacks’ father moved the family to Clover, Virginia, where the children were distributed among relatives.
Lacks ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, in a two-story log cabin that was once the slave quarters on the plantation owned by Henrietta’s white great-grandfather and great-uncle.
She shared a room with her nine-year-old cousin and future husband, David “Day” Lacks.
Henrietta and David moved to Maryland at the urging of another cousin, Fred Garret.
There, they had three more children: David Jr., Deborah and Joseph. They placed their daughter Elsie, who was developmentally disabled, in the Hospital for the Negro Insane.
On Jan 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to diagnose abnormal pain and bleeding in her abdomen. Physician Howard Jones quickly diagnosed her with cervical cancer.
During her subsequent radiation treatments, doctors removed two cervical samples from Lacks without her knowledge. She died at Johns Hopkins on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31.
The cells from Lacks’s tumor made their way to the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey. Gey noticed an unusual quality in the cells.
Unlike most cells, which survived only a few days, Lacks’s cells were far more durable.
Gey isolated and multiplied a specific cell, creating a cell line. He dubbed the resulting sample HeLa, derived from the name Henrietta Lacks.
The HeLa strain revolutionized medical research. Jonas Salk used the HeLa strain to develop the polio vaccine, sparking mass interest in the cells. As demand grew, scientists cloned the cells in 1955.
Since that time, over ten thousand patents involving HeLa cells have been registered. Researchers have used the cells to study disease and to test human sensitivity to new products and substances.
The Lacks family learned about the HeLa cells in the 1970s.
In 1973, a scientist contacted family members, seeking blood samples and other genetic materials—but inquiries from the family regarding the use of HeLa cells, and publications that included their own genetic information, were largely ignored.
The case gained new visibility in 1998, when the BBC screened an award-winning documentary on Lacks and HeLa. Rebecca Skloot later wrote a popular book on the subject, titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Oprah Winfrey and HBO announced plans to develop a film based on Skloot’s 2010 book and in 2017, the network aired the biopic.