Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia, to Eliza and Johnny Pleasant. Sometime after, her name was changed from Loretta to Henrietta. As a young child, Henrietta's mother passed away, and she moved to be raised by her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, on a tobacco farm in her beloved Clover, Virginia. Henrietta married David ‘‘Day’’ Lacks in 1941 in Halifax County, Virginia. As a young mother, she would move north with Day to find opportunities in Baltimore and made a home in Turner Station in Dundalk, Maryland. There, Henrietta and Day built a life for themselves and their five children: Lawrence, Elsie, David, Deborah, and Joseph (Zakariyya).
Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore after experiencing extensive vaginal bleeding. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which was terminal and quickly consumed her body despite treatment. At only 31 years of age, Henrietta’s life was cut short on October 4, 1951.
Henrietta Lacks died eight months after her cancer diagnosis, leaving behind her children, husband, and her ‘‘immortal cells’’ that would change the world. You see, not all of Henrietta Lacks died that day in 1951. She unknowingly left behind a piece of her that still lives today — it is called the HeLa cell.
Medical researchers took samples of Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous tumor during her treatment, and the HeLa cell line from her tumor proved remarkably resilient. These miracle cells are known as “HeLa” cells - derived from the first two letters of her first and last name. HeLa cells were a breakthrough in cell research - the first immortal line of human cells, doubling every 24 hours, dividing and replenishing indefinitely in a laboratory, and successfully growing outside of the human body for longer than 36 hours.
While the birth of the HeLa cells were making a global impact – her family was not informed. Henrietta Lacks’ cells were unique, growing by the millions, commercialized and distributed worldwide to researchers, resulting in advances in medicine. It was not until 20 years after Henrietta’s death that her family would learn how science retrieved her cells and of her enormous contribution to medicine and humanity.
The world would never be the same after the “HeLa” phenomena began in 1951. Since then, there has been mass production of the cells which have traveled around the globe, even into space! The HeLa cells are continually used for research, and to test theories about the cause and treatment of diseases. Over 50,000,000 metric tons of HeLa cells have been distributed around the world to become the subject of more than 75,000 studies.
Advances made possible by Henrietta Lacks’ cells, and the revenues they generated were not known to her family for more than twenty years. Even though Henrietta’s cells launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, to date, her family has never received any of the revenues HeLa cells generated.
For more than six decades, Henrietta Lacks’ prolific cells continue to grow and contribute to remarkable advances in medicine, including the development of the polio vaccine, as well as drugs for treating the effects of cancer, HIV/AIDS, hemophilia, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease. HeLa cells have been used in research that has contributed to the understanding of the effects of radiation and zero gravity on human cells. They have also informed research on chromosomal conditions, cancer, gene mapping, precision medicine, and even the current coronavirus studies as the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Henrietta, unknowingly, changed the world forever! She has been called many things Immortal, Heroine of Modern Medicine, Medical Miracle, and Wonder Woman. Henrietta Lacks’ legacy has been recognized around the world through memorials, conferences, museum exhibitions, libraries, print, and visual media. Her story has been told by many, including Rebecca Skloot, the New York Times bestselling author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which inspired the HBO FILMS movie adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey. Her significant contributions have been recognized by the United States Congress, state legislatures, and local policymakers; and globally honored by governments, artists, schools, universities, scientists, patient advocates, social justice leaders, and more.
To Henrietta’s family, she was their cherished “Hennie,” daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother. Henrietta was a remarkable woman during her lifetime, who loved her children, community, dancing, cooking, horseback riding, fashion and was as vibrant as her favorite color – red! In Henrietta’s passing, her medical contributions indeed exhibit this phenomenal woman.
Today, Henrietta Lacks continues to enhance many lives, even those who are unaware of her past existence. After all, Henrietta has a rich and important history and a great legacy that she left for her family to carry. Henrietta Lacks and her family’s experience is fundamental to modern bioethics policies and informed consent laws that benefit patients nationwide by building patient trust and protecting research participants. In 2013, the Lacks family entered a groundbreaking, HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement with the medical, scientific, and bioethics communities, giving them a role in regulating the HeLa genome sequences and discoveries.
On August 1, 2020, Henrietta's 100th birthday was honored around the world with the launch a yearlong HELA100: Henrietta Lacks Centennial CELLebration led by The Lacks Family. It is only fitting that during this historical year, her legacy was further recognized globally by the World Health Organization and the National Women's Hall of Fame. In the U.S., The Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act, was signed into law on December 18, 2020. This law calls for the U.S. Government Accountability Office to complete a study that reviews actions taken by federal agencies to help to address barriers to participation in federally funded cancer clinical trials by populations that have been traditionally underrepresented in such trials.
Henrietta Lacks, a phenomenal black woman, wife, and mother unknowingly changed the face of medical science, contributing to lasting, worldwide improvements in health. Henrietta is a hero of modern medicine, and her contributions to the medical discoveries resulting from her HeLa cells helped make possible some of the most important medical advances of the last century. Henrietta’s life has incontestably impacted global health, scientific research, bioethics, patient rights, and equity that benefit all people.
We invite the world to CELLebrate Henrietta Lacks’ legacy!
Jeri Lacks-Whye is the granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks and the daughter of Henrietta’s middle son David “Sonny” Lacks. Along with other family members, Jeri travels the country giving her insightful account of her grandmother’s important contributions to science. As the granddaughter of such an amazing African American woman that has left a legacy to the world, Jeri also discusses the release of the highly acclaim non-fiction book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.
In 2016, Jeri partnered with the White House to host a Cancer Moonshot Summit bringing together individuals and organizations representing the entire cancer community and beyond - researchers, oncologists, care providers, philanthropists, data and tech experts, advocates, patients and survivors - under the national charge to double the rate of progress towards a cure. Jeri continues to keep the legacy of her grandmother active and conscious while at the same time using her family’s story as a platform to take part in issues we face nationwide such as patient rights, health prevention, health disparities, literacy, fighting cancer, partnership between research and research participants, trustworthiness between the communities and medical establishments.
Jeri is a graduate of Villa Julie College formerly known as Stevenson University and Copping State University. Jeri is a native of Baltimore, Maryland. She works in the Baltimore City judiciary system in the domestic violence unit. Jeri’s work also includes serving as an advisor on the 2017 Emmy nominated, the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the HBO movie adaptation of her beloved grandmother’s life, which stars and is executive produced by Oprah Winfery.
Today, Jeri continues to curate The Lacks Family Collection, with artifacts from her grandmother's life and legacy. To educate future generations on the impact of Henrietta's immortal HeLa cells, Jeri
authored a poem Who Am I? Henrietta Lacks, The Mother of Modern Medicine, is working on a children's book and Co-Founded CELLebrate Henrietta Lacks.
David Lacks, Jr. is the grandson of Henrietta Lacks and the son of Henrietta’s middle son David “Sonny” Lacks. David is a patient rights advocate, who travels the country sharing his grandmother’s important contributions to science.
David and his family have been proud to speak truth to power as they serve as catalysts for modern bioethics policies and inform consent laws that are affording patients an unprecedented “seat at the table”, by advancing science, building trust, and protecting research participants.
In 2013, a milestone was reached as the Lacks Family entered a groundbreaking, HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement with the medical, scientific, and bioethics communities, giving David and his family a role in regulating the HeLa genome sequences, discoveries, data shared and important HeLa science to come. David is honored to serve on this historic National Institutes of Health six-member panel, which reviews proposals from researchers seeking to sequence the DNA of cell lines derived from his grandmother’s tumor or to use DNA profiles of such cells in their research. In this role, David works to provide controlled access to the genomic data and ensure that credit is attributed to the Lacks family in papers and scientific presentations based on the research done with the DNA data.
David possesses a degree in computer information systems and travels internationally installing computer systems and labs for businesses and educational institutions. David assisted in the creation of the Lacks Family website, and in his spare time uses his talent to maintain the Lacks’ family digital media.
David is currently leading the organization of a conference to celebrate the incontestable impact of Henrietta to commemorate Henrietta’s 100th birthday and Co-Founded CELLebrate Henrietta Lacks.
Veronica Robinson is Henrietta Lacks’ great-granddaughter. Veronica is a patient rights advocate who speaks on Henrietta Lacks’ legacy, their family's experience in biomedical research, impact on participation, and ethics in this modern era of precision medicine.
Veronica travels the country sharing The Lacks Family’s efforts to control their medical history and rebuild trust with the medical community. About which she was honored to give a 2018 TedX Talk.
Working with the National Institutes of Health, Veronica serves as both an All of US Ambassador advocating for access to precision medicine and as a Lacks Family Representative on the HeLa Genome Data Access Working Group. As a member of this groundbreaking Working Group, she contributes to providing controlled access to the genomic data and ensuring credit is attributed to The Lacks Family in publications based on the research done with Henrietta’s DNA data.
As a mentor for Baltimore City Public Schools, Veronica is committed to empowering the next generation. Inspired by Henrietta’s story, Veronica is currently studying at Baltimore City Community College to become a registered nurse to help make certain all people can access equitable and high-quality health care.
Alfred Lacks Carter, Jr. is the grandson of Henrietta Lacks and the son of Henrietta’s second daughter Deborah Lacks. Alfred is the Founder and President of the Henrietta Lacks House of Healing and 501c3 non-profit dedicated to providing transitional housing for men in order to combat homelessness and recidivism as well as re-entry into the community after recent release.
Alfred is highly active in his community, helping men transition back to their lives and families post-incarceration. Alfred also has presented in communities, organizations and schools across the country, educating the world on The Lacks Family story, his mother’s journey and his grandmother’s legacy. His efforts have included a number of social justice and health equity initiatives.
Alfred also acted in and served as an advisor on the 2017 Emmy nominated, the immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the HBO movie adaptation of his mother’s journey to learn about her mother, Henrietta Lacks, who was played by Oprah Winfery, who also was an executive producer.
Today, Alfred is collaborating with a youth entrepreneurship, education, and empowerment program to develop and launch a fragrance honoring the essence of his vibrant grandmother – Henrietta Lacks.
As members of The Lacks Family, we are committed to upholding our mission to preserve the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks and educate future generation on the impact of her immortal HeLa cells while promoting health equity and social justice.
The Lacks Family will continue to raise awareness and advocate to address worldwide injustices such as poverty, racism, medical ethics, unemployment, homelessness, education, patient rights, and tissue ownership.
Our family uplifts Henrietta’s contributions to the world.
The Lacks family has moved from being victims, to victors with a proud family heritage.
We truly appreciate everyone who has taken time to learn about Henrietta Lacks,
our family and her HeLa cells.
Remember! Henrietta Lacks is A Gift that Keeps on Giving.
We will continue to spread our positive message to schools, libraries, associations, communities and organizations worldwide, ensuring that
Henrietta Lacks' contributions to humanity are never forgotten.
Continue to keep our family in your prayers,
as this journey for our mother and grandmother’s legacy continues to flourish.
March's Centennial Conversation Conquering COVID-19: Advancing Equity One Year Later
Featuring Alfred Lacks Carter, Henrietta Lacks' Grandson; Veronica Robinson, Henrietta Lacks' Great-granddaughter; and Dr. Uché Blackstock, Founder & CEO of Advancing Health Equity.