Henrietta Lacks: Life Beyond Death

L.K.H. Pietri 01/17/17

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October 4th, 1951, in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, lay a woman dying of extremely painful cervical cancer. A swab of her cells, eventually known widely as HeLa cells, were taken from her cervix without her knowledge; these very cells would later be shipped to labs around the world, leading to scientific breakthroughs in the study of herpes, different cancers such a leukemia, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and even cloning. For two decades, her family would know nothing of these accomplishments, and even today still fight for their right to know. Henrietta Lacks, the woman who later would not be remembered for much else besides her line of immortal cells, the woman who looked as though she was being taken by “the devil of pain itself, ” yet managed to make sure her children were being taken care of in her last dying breath, would cause controversy with the usage of genetic materials, ethnicities in the hospital, and the very core of science.

January of 2017 is not only a fresh start for us all, but also Cervical Health Awareness Month. There is no better person to look towards during this month than Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot dedicated her life to finding out the name of the woman barely mentioned in her high school biology class and learning her story, later to publish the novel The Immortal Life on Henrietta Lacks. The novel documents Skloot’s journey to discovering the woman behind HeLa cells and learning about her family through documented interviews, conversations, and trips to seeing the cells in laboratories. Although the novel was published in 2010, Skloot has not stopped fighting for Henrietta’s rights; the Lacks family went decades without knowledge of HeLa cells and without monetary compensation from their medical breakthroughs. In 2013, Skloot released a New York Times article responding to the event of German researchers publishing the HeLa genome. The Lacks family has struggled for decades to gain control of the HeLa strain and still tries hard to fight for Henrietta and all that she has accomplished.

HBO is now planning to release a biopic of the same name this year. Oprah Winfrey will be starring as Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, and also take the part of executive producer, alongside director George C. Wolfe. Rose Byrne will also be starring as Rebecca Skloot, with Renée Elise Goldsberry playing Henrietta Lacks herself. The film will mainly be shot in Baltimore, the main setting of the Lacks family’s life. The nation as a whole will know of the story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, journeying with the Lacks family through the poverty, heartbreak, and self-discovery.

October 4th, 1951, in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, lay a woman dying of extremely painful cervical cancer. A swab of her cells, eventually known widely as HeLa cells, were taken from her cervix without her knowledge; these very cells would later be shipped to labs around the world, leading to scientific breakthroughs in the study of herpes, different cancers such a leukemia, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and even cloning. For two decades, her family would know nothing of these accomplishments, and even today still fight for their right to know. Henrietta Lacks, the woman who later would not be remembered for much else besides her line of immortal cells, the woman who looked as though she was being taken by “the devil of pain itself, ” yet managed to make sure her children were being taken care of in her last dying breath, would cause controversy with the usage of genetic materials, ethnicities in the hospital, and the very core of science.

January of 2017 is not only a fresh start for us all, but also Cervical Health Awareness Month. There is no better person to look towards during this month than Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot dedicated her life to finding out the name of the woman barely mentioned in her high school biology class and learning her story, later to publish the novel The Immortal Life on Henrietta Lacks. The novel documents Skloot’s journey to discovering the woman behind HeLa cells and learning about her family through documented interviews, conversations, and trips to seeing the cells in laboratories. Although the novel was published in 2010, Skloot has not stopped fighting for Henrietta’s rights; the Lacks family went decades without knowledge of HeLa cells and without monetary compensation from their medical breakthroughs. In 2013, Skloot released a New York Times article responding to the event of German researchers publishing the HeLa genome. The Lacks family has struggled for decades to gain control of the HeLa strain and still tries hard to fight for Henrietta and all that she has accomplished.

HBO is now planning to release a biopic of the same name this year. Oprah Winfrey will be starring as Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, and also take the part of executive producer, alongside director George C. Wolfe. Rose Byrne will also be starring as Rebecca Skloot, with Renée Elise Goldsberry playing Henrietta Lacks herself. The film will mainly be shot in Baltimore, the main setting of the Lacks family’s life. The nation as a whole will know of the story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, journeying with the Lacks family through the poverty, heartbreak, and self-discovery.


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