Who was Henrietta Lacks? 4 things to know before 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'


In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave, but she's since been immortalized. The African-American tobacco farmer, who died from cervical cancer, has inspired a book, two movies and, in part, some of the most significant medical breakthroughs in history. 

After being diagnosed, Lacks underwent radiation treatments at Johns Hopkins University before she died. During her treatment, doctors removed tissue from her body that turned out to be the first discovered immortal cell line in medical history. Lacks was the subject of a BBC documentary, as well as a book by Rebecca Skloot, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has been adapted into an HBO movie. Written and directed by George C. Wolfe, the film stars Rose Byrne as Skloot and Oprah Winfrey as Lacks' daughter Deborah. Lacks herself will be played by Hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern on HBO. Below are a few facts to learn about the woman who changed the scientific world. 

Richard Shotwell/AP

1. She was only 31 when she died 

Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins University when she died at age 31 on Oct. 4, 1951. She was the mother of five childrengiving birth to her first child at age 14. Toward the end of her life, doctors said she was too sick to be visited by her children, so she would wave to them from the hospital window. 

2. She didn't know her cells were being taken 

Text on the front cover of Skloot's book reads, "Doctors took her cells without asking," and much of the book details the confusion, suspicion and resentment the Lacks family felt toward the medical and scientific communities because they were not asked for permission to harvest her cells. 

It was Dr. George Gey who took cells from Lacks' cervix without telling her. The cells reproduced rapidly, resulting in the first immortal cell line, and were shared with other labs and eventually sold as part of a profitable industry from which her family never benefited financially. 

3. The wrong name was used to identify her cells 

The cells were given the code name "HeLa," from the first two letters of her first and last name. Reporters pursuing the story behind the cells were told the name was "Helen Lane" by medical professionals to thwart their research. It wasn't until the 1970s that the name Henrietta Lacks became a well-known part of the story. 

4. Her cells have helped countless people 

Medical advances that can be credited, at least in part, to the HeLa cell line include the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, chemotherapy, the cancer drug tamoxifen and treatments for influenza, leukemia and Parkinson's disease. 

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