Her cells might live forever.
Henrietta Lacks died of uremic poisoning in 1951 in Johns Hopkins Hospital (the only one in the area that would admit black patients). The cervical cancer she was being treated for had metastasized throughout her entire body. But unbeknownst to Lacks or her family, her doctor had removed two samples from her cervix during treatment. And those cells are still alive today. There are billions of them.
The cells represented a significant breakthrough for science.
Before these cells were harvested, scientists had trouble using human cells for research. Cells cultured from other cells would only survive for a few days, but Henrietta Lacks' cells behaved differently: Even after the cells were multiplied, the cells survived. Which meant that scientists could use them to develop the polio vaccine with them. In 1955, they were the first human cells to be successfully cloned. They've been used for research in cancer, HIV, radiation poisoning, gene mapping, and countless other medical innovations.
And what of Henrietta Lacks?
Her death was tragic and unavoidable- the treatments available at the time were not capable of saving her. But her cells were taken without her permission. Her body was treated as available to the scientific community. Informed consent (the process for getting permission before conducting a healthcare intervention on a person) did not become the norm until the 1970s. The doctor who harvested the cells, George Gey, made the cells available for biological research (instead of keeping them for profit). They did however become commodified, and they've been bought and sold by the billions. In the meantime, Lacks' family was still unaware the cells had been taken, and her descendants today can't afford medical insurance. The issue of Lacks' privacy was never addressed during her life. “I look at it as though these are my grandmother’s medical records that just out there for the world to see.” (via).
It wasn't the first, or the last time, the bodies of black people were unethically used for medical research.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study of 1932 is probably the most well-known example. Researchers infected African-American with syphilis under the guise of delivering free healthcare. The researchers wanted to understand the natural progression of the untreated disease, and did not tell any of the men that they had been infected (nor that they would never be treated). This was part of a pattern of anti-black eugenics in the United States. Women of color were unknowingly sterilized (a horrific human rights abuse that was still being continued in 2010). To this day, there is still a disparity between African-American people when it comes to the medical care they receive (via). So while Henrietta Lacks' cells contributed a great deal to the progress medical science has made, this progress comes with a history of cruelty and violence. A tradition of being fit for experimentation and not for care.
Which is why Henrietta Lacks deserves to be remembered.
She wasn't just a collection of cells. She was a person. A mother. She lived through WWII. We should remember her for who she was in addition to what her cells contributed. And we should take from this an important lesson: There can be no scientific progress without social progress. We cannot treat human beings like test subjects and exploit their bodies. Our actions should be tempered by respect and humanity, always.