Henrietta Lacks

Medical Patient
Date Of Birth:
1 August 1920
Date Of Death:
4 October 1951
Place Of Birth:
Roanoke, Virginia
Best Known As:
The woman who was the source of HeLa "immortal" cells

Name at birth: Loretta Pleasant

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American in Maryland whose cell samples were taken without her consent in 1951 and are still used today in biomedical research. Born and raised in rural Virginia, she moved to outside of Baltimore in 1941. The mother of five children, at the age of 31 she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Cell samples were taken and given to Dr. George Gey (1899-1970), a cancer researcher. The cells, dubbed "He-La" cells, were the first cells to continue thriving outside the body (the He-La cell is sometimes called "immortal" as a result). Dr. Gey donated them to biomedical researchers, including Jonas Salk, who used them to develop the polio vaccine. Over time, the cells become commoditized, but neither Lacks -- who died in 1951 -- nor her family ever received any compensation. After several decades, the story of Henrietta Lacks opened the discussion over ethical standards and race relations in the field of biomedical research.