Life in death: the legacy of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951 a woman called Henrietta Lacks died in Baltimore, USA. These are cells from her body. 

They were taken from her just before she died. They have been growing and multiplying ever since.

There are now billions of these cells in labs across the world. If massed together they would span more than 105 kilometers and weigh 400 times Henrietta’s original body weight. 

The cells have helped to develop vaccines and further our understanding of cancer, HIV and AIDS, and the behaviour of human cells in general. 

Images from Wikipedia

Life in death

Here’s a timeline of Henrietta’s life, death, and her subsequent gift to science.


Henrietta Lacks is born on 1 August in Roanoke, Virginia.


Henrietta’s mother dies. She is raised by her grandparents in Clover, Virginia.


Henrietta gives birth to her first child, Lawrence, when she’s 14. The father is Henrietta’s cousin, Day.


She gives birth to her daughter Elsie.


Henrietta marries Day aged 20. Their young family move to Turner Station in Baltimore.


After the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta goes to The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to have a “knot on her womb” diagnosed.

She is told she has cervical cancer, but she doesn’t tell her family.

She has radium treatment and starts x-ray therapy. She is told she can’t have any more children.


Henrietta becomes very ill. She finally reveals the extent of her illness to her family, showing them the burn marks from radiation.

She returns to hospital and is told her cancer is inoperable. She has tumours throughout her body.

Cells are taken from her tumours. They are sent to a lab run by scientist George Otto Gey. He creates the first immortal human cell line by isolating one of Henrietta’s cells and repeatedly dividing it, so it can be used for experiments.

Henrietta dies on 4 October.


Henrietta’s cells continue to multiply quickly and aggressively. The samples are packaged and sold to labs across the world for scientific research.

They are called HeLa cells after Henrietta’s first and last names.


Jonas Salk opens a HeLa cell production factory where he uses the cells to develop the first polio vaccine. Within a year the vaccine is ready for human trials – and it becomes a staple of child healthcare around the world.

Demand grows for HeLa cells. Gey sells more samples to labs across the world for scientific research.


A geneticist accidentally spills chemicals on HeLa cells at a lab in Texas. They instantly grow in size and untangle themselves, making them more visible under the microscope.


Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan use HeLa cells to identify that humans have 46 chromosomes. Before this it was believed to be 48.

In another scientific milestone, HeLa cells are the first human cells to be successfully cloned.


It is discovered that HeLa cells can travel through the air. They contaminate other tissue samples being used to find a cure for cancer, wasting millions of dollars of scientific research.


The Lacks family begin to receive requests for blood samples from researchers hoping to replace the contaminated cells. They find out for the first time that samples from Henrietta have been used for research.


Despite other cell lines being created, HeLa cells are the gold standard. They still multiply at a remarkable rate, capable of doubling in 24 hours.

They continue to be sold for billions of dollars for research into the effects of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as HIV and AIDS, gene mapping and other scientific pursuits.


Biologist Leigh Van Valen claims the HeLa cells are “no longer human” because they don’t behave like human cells. Some scientists consider them an entirely new species.


HeLa cells are used to test how the parvo virus infects humans, dogs and cats.


German virologist Harald zur Hausen uses HeLa cells to find a link between HPV and cervical cancer, which leads to the creation of two HPV vaccines. He is awarded the Nobel Prize.


The number of scientific articles published about research involving HeLa cells reaches 60,000.


HeLa cells develop new strains as they continue to mutate in different lab conditions across the world. They have genetically evolved to adapt to their environment – a petri dish – as a result of natural selection.


Two members of the Lacks family are invited to serve on the National Institute of Health group responsible for reviewing researchers’ applications for access to HeLa cells.


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Giving nothing away

The evening was a write-off.

He’d wasted it staring into the mid-distance, focusing neither on the automated video playlist that had started with AC/DC and somehow finished with Wham!, or the book that had ended up closing itself. In three hours he’d got up once to put the kettle on. But he’d not listened out for it boiling, so he didn’t get up a second time to make the cup of tea. Everything he did that day had been half-arsed.

He thought about the people who must have climbed mountains today, rescued trapped pets from burning houses, and danced as they watched their favourite band play live. And he’d been sat here the whole time.

Still, it would soon be time to rest.

It was very late. Before he went to bed he decided to check his Facebook. He opened his laptop and fired up his browser. He tapped the F key and the URL filled itself out. Then he hit Return.

He looked at his friends’ posts. Most of them were just updates about which restaurant or bar they were at. Or to say what they thought of the latest person to get booted off whatever reality show they were watching. Or links to sponsorship pages for charity runs or bike rides.

He spent the best part of an hour scrolling through dozens, hundreds of posts that did nothing to even change the expression on his face – tired, still, and sunken.

He was about to close his browser when he saw her.

He recognised her almost straight away, even from the little thumbnail photo. It was the smile. When she smiled you could tell she was holding herself back, giving nothing away. A kind of Mona Lisa smile. He looked at her name. It was down as Stephanie.

He’d always known her as Stef. With an f.

He loved her.

He clicked on her picture and went to her profile. He wanted to see what other photos she had on there. She was married now with a family. There were albums of her on holiday, at a theme park, and dressing up for Halloween. There were other albums of her on nights out with her mates, on girls’ holidays, and at weddings. She was always smiling. Smiling that smile he remembered. It was special.

He yawned and rubbed his eyes, half asleep in his seat, until he spotted something that woke him right back up again. It was another picture, but a picture from back in the day. Old pictures like that take you right back, but this one especially, because it was him that took it.

It was taken in the Highlands.

He and Stef had rented a cottage in the middle of nowhere with some uni mates, to celebrate the end of the year. There were about eight of them, and they were all going home for Christmas, so they’d decided to do something different – and get pissed together somewhere random. That’s how they ended up booking this cottage.

It was freezing, but sunny and crisp, and there was no one else around. It was nice. He’d taken loads of cool photos, mainly of the lochs near the cottage, and a few group shots of everyone in a line with a forest in the background. Stuff like that. It all went up on Facebook.

But with this photo, he remembered exactly what he was thinking at the time. It was the last one he took before everyone went home.

It was the morning they checked out. They had to check out at 10am, so everyone looked a little rough. The sun was in everyone’s eyes. No one looked like they wanted their picture taken. In fact one guy looked like he was going to throw up.

He remembered everyone getting into position for the photo. He was stood next to Stef, at the back. Everyone was up close, but they were up close in a way that said: “I want you.” Everyone else was talking but them, who were pretending to listen, but were really having their own little moment.

Nothing had happened between them on the trip. They’d got drunk together and chatted to other people, played sharades, cooked. But now was the best part. There was something in the air. He remembered how excited he was that she seemed interested in him.

The guy who’d suggested taking the picture was going back to Italy that summer, for good, so someone in the shot said that someone else should take it, so the Italian guy could be in it.

He said he’d take it. He walked to the front, took the camera from the Italian guy, then knelt down and said: “Say cheese.”

Most people in the photo looked weird. They were making ‘Ch’, ‘eee’, or ‘zzz’ faces after all. He looked at their expressions and laughed. But she, Stef, wasn’t saying “cheese”. She was just looking at the lens, through to him. She looked beautiful. Her eyes were narrowed and her smile was turned up at one end of her mouth, as if she was speaking to him both then and now, saying: “Dude, I love you.” She was on her own in the photo, and there was a space next to her where he had stood, before he agreed to take it.

He zoomed in on her face until it filled his laptop screen. That Mona Lisa smile, giving nothing away. So elegant and exciting. So perfect.

The next morning he woke up on the sofa. Dawn’s blue glow crept in from behind the curtains. He opened his eyes slowly and saw feet standing nearby. He turned his head. It was Stef.

“Morning,” he said. But she didn’t reply.

He was in the living room. Their living room, where he must have drifted off. With his laptop on his lap. It was boiling.

She wasn’t smiling anymore. He hadn’t seen her smile in years.


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