Sometimes in history there are stories of women that make me just down right angry. When unfair circumstances rob a woman of rights, proper treatment or general human decency, often at the hands of a man, it can get frustrating to read about, let alone imagine the feelings of those who experienced them first hand. But if there is anything I learned from reading the story of Henrietta Lacks in the book about her life "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", it's that anger or hate don't change history. In her daughters own words, "like I'm always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can't do it with a hate attitude".
Henrietta Lacks was a black woman from Virginia who's "routine" biopsy of a tumor growing in her cervix, turned into a medical breakthrough that has advanced the world of medicine in almost every capacity. In 1951 at the age of 31, Henrietta went in for an inquiry about a lump she had found in her cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital. During her treatment, samples of the tumor were taken without her knowledge and taken to a research facility to be studied. What the researchers found was life changing.
They discovered that the cells from her tumor acted differently than any other cells they had tested. That instead of dying off after a few days like all the other cells, Henrietta's actually grew. Fascinated by this discovery, Hopkins scientist George Otto Gey created from her cells what is known as the HeLa cell line and is used in medical practices today. In fact there are believed to be trillions of her cells used in scientific labs all over the world today (because of the rare they grow and the way they have been mass produced it's impossible to know the exact number). Her growing, immortal cell line has been used to make many significant advances in medicine including; discovering the polio vaccine, chemo therapy, gene mapping, and every type of cell testing you can think of.
There were many scientists and doctors who made lots of money (millions of dollars) by selling the cultivated cells of Henrietta's own DNA, and she was never told about her cells traveling around the world. She died of this aggressive cancer just a few months later. It wasn't until 1975 that her family became aware of it after some inquiring scientists and doctors wanted to know more about the families genetic history for scientific purposes.
She had 3 living children at the time David, Deborah and Joseph-- her fourth and last child, Elsie, who was born with special needs passed away tragically in an institution at the early age of 15. Both David and Joseph, who had checkered pasts, took the news of their mother's DNA being sold and tested without their knowledge or consent badly. They couldn't understand how the Hospital could have used her DNA and made millions off of it without any permission. They became angry and spent a large portion of their lives trying to get lawyers and politicians to see the injustice of it all. Sadly, most disregarded the brothers and did little to help. Deborah on the other hand, although supset, tried to let go of it and move on with her life that is until she met Rebecca.
In the late 1990's Deborah was contacted by Rebecca. Freelance writer Rebecca Skloot began a several years journey of researching and becoming close to the Lack's family. She uncovered the mystery and mistreatment of Henrietta and her family by the hospital and helped to shed light on a story that shook the common practices of medical facilities and personal DNA collection.
But if there is one lesson we learn from the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family it is that no matter what injustice or unfair lot life has delivered you, no matter how guilty or not the offender in your life is, your life is only as happy and fulfilling as you decide it can be. No amount of anger or hate is going to change what happened. In fact no emotion we have will change our past, but, our emotions and outlook have everything to do with our future.
I am so grateful for the light that has been shown on the life of Henrietta Lacks. That I got to read her story and learn through her progeny the importance of making the choice to be happy. Thanks to Henrietta her HeLa cells are still being used to cure diseases and advance medicine. She is a #wowwoman and one for the history books.