For the August 14, 2013 Prairie Dogma show, I was asked to talk about a woman that I admire, a woman that inspires me.  There are a lot of woman I admire and respect for so many different reasons.  There are those making impacted today such as Michelle Malkin, Mary Katharine Ham, Sara Palin, S.E. Cupp, Dana Loesch, Greta Van Susteren, Judge Jeanine Pirro, Condoleezza Rice and my friend Felicia Winfree Cravens.  All of these are good choices.  I could also choose someone that has passed such as Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Marie Curie, Margaret Thatcher, Rosa Parks and my favorite scientist, Rosalind Franklin.  I made this choice carefully and with great thought.  Not only did I want the audience to be interested but I wanted to teach them something as well.

After many days of thought, I chose the most influential women in modern medicine.  In some small way she has influenced every medical discovery since 1951 and practically no one knows who she is.


She has continually helped in cancer research.  Because of her there has been intense understanding of tuberculosis, AIDS, Human papillomaviruses (HPV), Parvo virus, canine distemper virus.  Essentially, because of her the field of virology has been created.

She is responsible for Dr Jonas Salk discovering the polio vaccine.  She is responsible for the discovery of a lot of vaccines, including measles and mumps.

She has helped in studies of cancer including in vitro cancer research using cell lines. She is responsible for researchers understanding the difference between cancerous and normal cells.  She has helped define cancer markers in RNA, which lead to establishing an RNAi based identification system and interference of specific cancer cells.

She has played an important role in gene mapping, Genetic medicine might not be possible without her, as researchers discovered that the cells’ chromosomes were visible when treated with a specific stain.

She has helped standardize laboratory tools for studying the effects of radiation.  She has also helped standardize procedures and tools for culturing and growing cells.

She flew in the early space shuttle missions.  She has been in nuclear test sites around the world.  In the biomedical world, she is as famous as lab rats and petri dishes.

She has helped researchers test medications for cancer and Parkinson’s disease and she has even been known to help test products like cosmetics.

She is responsible for countless other scientific pursuits.  She plays a pivotal role in helping scientist win Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine.

Because of her over 60,000 scientific research articles have been published and that number is increasing steadily at a rate of more than 300 papers each month.

She is the most important woman in modern medicine.  At least her immortal cells are.  Her name is Henrietta Lacks.  Her immortal cells, named by Dr. George Otto Gey, are the infamous HeLa cells.


Who is Henrietta Lacks?

Born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, her family is uncertain how her name changed form Loretta to Henrietta.   A descendant of slaves and slaveholders, she grew up farming the same land on which her forebears toiled–and that her relatives still farm today.   Henrietta Lacks “was known as pleasant and smiling, and always willing the lend a helping hand.” That she did, in more ways than she ever knew.

Her mother died giving birth to her 10th child in 1924.  Unable to care for all his children, Henrietta’s father distributed the children among relatives, Henrietta ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks.  There she lived with many of her cousins including her first cousin David “Day” Lacks, whom she would later marry in on April 10, 1941.

In 1941 the couple would leave the tobacco farm to move to Turner Station, a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, so Day could work at a steel mill.  Day and Henrietta had 5 children together.  Her last child was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital in November 1950 just four and half months before Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer.

Months after giving birth to her last child, Henrietta started having abnormal vaginal bleeding.  After examining her and running tests, her local doctor referred her to Johns Hopkins as it was the closest hospital that actually treated black patients.  Dr. Howard Jones examined Henrietta and discovered a lump on her cervix.  He promptly sent a biopsy to the pathology lab.  Henrietta was diagnosed with malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, stage 1.

Henrietta was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn into place.  After several days in place, the tubes were removed; she was discharged from John Hopkins and instructed to return for X-ray treatments.  During her radiation treatments, two samples of Herietta’s cervix was removed, a health part and a cancerous part without her permission.  Theses cells were given to Dr. George Otto Gey.  Those cells would eventually become the HeLa immortal cell line.

Henrietta returned to John Hopkins on August 8 for treatments and remained there until her death on October 4, 1951.  She was buried in an unmarked grave in a family cemetery in Lackstown.  Her exact burial location is not known.  In 2010 Dr. Roland Pattilo of Morehous School of Medicine donated a headstone for Lacks after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  The headstone, which is shaped like a book, reads:

Henrietta Lacks

August 01, 1920 – October 04, 1951

In loving memory of phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many.

Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa).  Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.

Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family

HeLa Cells

The cells from Henrietta’s tumor were given to researcher Dr. George Gey for study.  He quickly found out her cells were special; they could be kept alive and grow and grow and grow.  Usually cells cultured from other cells only survive a few days.  Dr Gey was able to isolate one specific cell, multiply it and start a cell line.  He named them HeLa.  These where the first human cells to be grown in the lab and did not die.  Researchers could now spend less time trying to keep cells alive and actually concentrate on conducting experiments.

Excited to share his discovery, Dr Gey gave cells to several other scientists, who gave some to other scientists, who gave some to other scientists.  Eventually, HeLa cells were commercially produced and sold as the demand for the HeLa cells quickly grew.  The are still being commercially produced and sold today.

I’m confused, why are HeLa cells so special?

Why HeLa cells are so special is a difficult question for me to answer.  Basically, they grow faster, better and easier than any other cell out there.  While researching Hennrietta, I found that Shanna Freeman described it best in her article, How HeLa Cells Work.

“All of the body’s normal cells experience the effects of aging over time, known as cellular senescence. Repeated divisions cause the cell’s DNA to become unstable, and sometimes toxins form. This means that eventually the cells are unable to replicate, or divide, and the cell dies. This is called programmed cell death (PCD), apoptosis or even cellular suicide. It’s part of the normal process for many cells, and it varies depending on the type of cell.

While it may sound awful, PCD can be a good thing. It’s how fingers and toes are formed in utero (fetuses start out with webbed appendages) and how our immune system kills off cells that are infected by viruses. Too much PCD can cause tissue damage and lead to disease, but so can too little. For example, if cells grow out of control, they can become cancerous.

When grown in a laboratory setting, PCD generally occurs after about 50 cell divisions. But that’s what sets HeLa apart. Under the right conditions, HeLa cells form an immortal cell line; they divide indefinitely. Remember that HeLa cells were grown from a tissue sample from Lacks’ cervical tumor. Cancerous cells don’t experience PCD, and Lacks’ particular cells were especially hardy. Just like the cancer grew and spread quickly through Lacks’ body, HeLa cells grow and spread quickly in vitro. Nobody knows quite why. Lacks had both the human papillomavirus (HPV) and syphilis; so one theory is that these helped suppress PCD in the cells.”

To my knowledge and research, there are no other cells like Henrietta Lacks’s.  Her cells are unique….special…immortal.

Why does she inspire me?  Why do I admire her?

Henrietta grew up a normal average person.  Like many people of color in that time, she was not granted the opportunities we are granted today.  She had very little education.  She loved and took pride in her family.  She worked hard.  She helped neighbors and friends.  In her time, she was an average, everyday person.

Now look around your world.  Think about the people you see everyday.  Think about people you know.  In your world, there are important people like doctors and lawyers.  There are your loved ones.  There are the unimportant people like the guy that just served you your French fries.  Did you ever think that those people might be the ones that cure cancer?  They might become president.  They might help you grow as a person.  They might become as important as Henrietta Lacks but they are unique, special, and you never know….they may become immortal.