Many of the medical breakthroughs you read and hear about today are largely due to one relatively unknown Black woman: Henrietta Lacks. It is because of her cells that some of the most dangerous diseases and outbreaks have been avoided or stopped. And it all started with a pain in her stomach.
On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital because she felt a “knot” inside of her. She had told her cousins about the knot, and they automatically assumed correctly that she was pregnant. But after giving birth to Joseph, Henrietta started bleeding abnormally and profusely. Her local doctor tested her for syphilis, which came back negative, and referred her to Johns Hopkins hospital.
Johns Hopkins was their only choice for a hospital since it was the only one near them that treated black patients. Howard W. Jones, her new doctor, examined Henrietta and the lump in her cervix. He cut off a small part of the tumor and sent it to the pathology lab. Soon after, Lacks was told that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. But later in 1970, colleagues writing a tribute discovered that Lacks’ cancer had been misdiagnosed and was actually an adenocarcinoma of the cervix. This was a common mistake at the time and the treatment would not have changed
Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn in place. After several days in place, the tubes were removed and she was discharged from Johns Hopkins with instructions to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up. During her radiation treatments for the tumor, two samples of Henrietta’s cervix were removed—a healthy part and a cancerous part—without her permission. The cells from her cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey. These cells eventually became the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research.