• Black History Month Essay Contest – Second Place

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – by Maryam Baryal, PGHS Freshman

    On August 1, 1920, Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia to a black tobacco farming family. A few years later, her mother passed away during childbirth, leaving Lacks’ father a widower with ten children. Knowing he could not raise them by himself, he moved his family north, to Clover, Virginia, where he divided up the children between his relatives to raise. Henrietta was sent to live with her grandfather who also happened to be raising her cousin named Day. In 1935, at the age of fourteen, Henrietta had a baby boy with her cousin and four years later, they had a daughter. In 1941, the couple decided to get married. 

    When another cousin informed them of the booming steel business in Maryland, Henrietta and Day moved their tiny family to Baltimore, where they had three more children. With strange bumps and excessive bleeding before and after her fifth pregnancy, Henrietta made a visit to the Johns Hopkins Hospital. At the time, Johns Hopkins was one of the few hospitals treating African Americans. After an examination, a gynecologist discovered a large malignant tumor on Henrietta’s cervix. A sample of her cells taken for a biopsy, were sent to Dr. George Gey, who had been looking for an immortal cell line that could be used in cancer research. Thus far, every cell sample he had collected from patients died in a few days, but he noticed that Henrietta Lacks’ sample not only survived longer, but also doubled every twenty to twenty-four hours. 

    Dr. Gey named the extraordinary cells, HeLa, taking the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name. Even though he did not know why or how her cells survived for so long and multiplied so fast, he received recognition for finding an immortal cell line. At the time, it was not uncommon for doctors not to seek consent to study a patient or their tissues. As a result, Henrietta never knew about her cells and as her cells developed and prospered, her health declined. In 1951, a few months after her first visit to Johns Hopkins, she died from cervical cancer. Even after her death, her cells helped doctors, biologists, and researchers advance medicine and save millions of lives around the world. The durable cells played a crucial role in creating the polio vaccine, learning how viruses work, testing the effects of radiation and poison, and studying the human genome. 

    When anyone came close to learning whose cells HeLa were, scientists or researchers would come up with pseudonyms like Helen Lane or Helen Larsen to throw them off. Despite all the advances her cells helped the medical world make, no one knew of Henrietta Lacks’ name till the 1970s, after almost two decades of her cells being used by researchers and scientists. When Henrietta’s son received the news about his mother’s cells, he only felt interested in the money involved. The Lacks family lived in poverty their entire life so when they learned of Henrietta’s cells, they started a campaign to receive what they felt had been stolen from them. 

    In the twenty-first century, Lacks’ case played a major role in legal and ethical debates over receiving consent of an individual before using their cellular material. In 2013, the National Institute of Health gave the Lacks family full control of data on the HeLa cell genome, requiring researchers to have applications approved to access the genome’s sequence information. Even with all the medical advancements made, nothing justifies how unfairly researchers treated Henrietta Lacks and her family by using her cells without her consent and profiting millions of dollars all for themselves. 

    Maryam Baryal, Freshman, Pacific Grove High School, 24 February 2021 

    Ms. Maryam Baryal, Second Place $50

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 18, 2021

    Topics: Creative Writing


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