By: Treasure White


History has accounted for the numerous contributions made by many African-American women in the United States. Henrietta Lacks without knowing made her mark as a contributor to the first continuous “immortal” human cell line, that later played a role in the development of the first safe and effective polio vaccine by Jonas Salk.


Lacks, a rural tobacco farmer and mother of 5, lived with her husband in Halifax county Virginia. After seeking medical attention for abnormal spotting between menstrual cycles, it was discovered that Lacks possessed carcinoma tumors confined to the cervix. A routine biopsy was performed on Lacks and without her consent her extracted tissues were cultured and grown in the Tissue Culture Laboratory at Johns Hopkins Hospital for research.


The discovery of Lack’s cell lineage proved remarkable because previous efforts to grow either normal cervical epithelium or cervical carcinoma in culture proved difficult for scientist. These cell lines were termed “HeLa” after using the first two letters of Lack first and last name. The cell lineage later became high in demand leading to mass production throughout the world. Experiments testing the survival of human tissue cells in zero gravity launched the HeLa in outer space, technically making the cell remnants a first for a black woman.

Recently it’s been discovered that Lacks’ immortal cells tested positive for strain 18 of the human papilomavirus (HPV). This strain is very aggressive and caused the demise for Henrietta Lack at the early age of 31.

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