About Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920. No one knows how she became Henrietta. A midwife name Fannie delivered her into a small shack on a dead-end road overlooking a train depot, where hundreds of freight cars came and went each day. Henrietta shared that house with her parents and eight older siblings until 1924, when her mother, Eliza Lacks Pleasant, died giving birth to her tenth child.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, pg. 18


Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Virginia and raised on a tobacco farm. She married her first cousin, David Day and later settled near Baltimore in Turner Station where Day worked at a steel mill. This was soon after the beginning of WWII and many African Americans came north for work.


After giving birth to her fifth child, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins, the only hospital within twenty miles that treated black patients and had been established as a charity hospital.


In an attempt to grow immortal cells (that would continuously divide and replenish themselves), Dr. George Gey took samples of all women who came to Hopkins with cervical cancer. Unlike any cells they had seen before, Dr. Gey and his colleagues that found that Ms. Lacks' cells were growing and dividing rapidly, and with “mythological intensity.”


Henrietta Lack’s cells doubled in size every 24 hours and Dr. Gey shared these cells for free with any researcher interested. As a result, these cells, named HeLa (for Henrietta Lacks) were essential in the research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits. Ms. Lacks died not too long after her diagnosis.  For many years, her family knew nothing about impact her cells had on medical science.

  • Henrietta's Dance (Johns Hopkins Magazine) April 2000.
    Not long before her death, Henrietta Lacks danced. As the film rolled, her long thin face teased the camera, flashing a seductive grin as she moved, her eyes locked on the lens. She tilted her head back and raised her hands, waving them softly in the air before letting them fall to smooth her curlers. Then the film went blank.

  • Henrietta Lacks Receives Honorary Degree (NPR) May 2011.
    Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with cervical cancer. Doctors took her cells without her knowledge and used them for research. And they've been used in tens of thousands of research studies. Now nearly 60 years after her death, Morgan State University in Baltimore has awarded her an honorary degree. Michele Norris and Robert Siegel have more.

  • Henrietta Lacks gets an honorary degree from Morgan State University (The Baltimore Brew) May 2011.
    Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with cervical cancer. Doctors took her cells without her knowledge and used them for research. And they've been used in tens of thousands of research studies. Now nearly 60 years after her death, Morgan State University in Baltimore has awarded her an honorary degree. Michele Norris and Robert Siegel have more.

  • Henrietta's Tumor (Radio Lab)
    We end with the extraordinary story of Henrietta Lacks. Though she died of cervical cancer in 1951, she unknowingly held the key to unlocking medical advancements (from polio vaccines to chemotherapy drugs) in her tumor cells. After taking a biopsy of Henrietta's cervical cancer, researcher Dr. George Gey and his lab assistant Mary Kubicek, discovered that Henrietta's cells could not only reproduce, but THRIVE outside the body--a breakthrough that would change modern medicine. Later, Dr. Stanley Gartler found that Henrietta's cells were even capable of jumping out of the petri dish and colonizing other cell strains. Now, decades after Henrietta's death, her cells are still alive. 

  • In Memory of Henrietta Lacks (Congressional Record)
    Mr. Speaker, I rise today to pay tribute to Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose contributions to medical science and research have gone relatively unnoticed for the past 46 years. Ms. Lacks provided a crucial sample of cells that has furthered our knowledge of medical science and disease prevention, and for this contribution, we are all grateful.

  • The Way of All Flesh Documentary (BBC) 1996.
    In 1951, a woman died in Baltimore, America. She was called Henrietta Lacks. These are cells from her body. They were taken from her just before she died. They have been growing and multiplying ever since.