Henrietta Lacks was a Black tobacco farmer whose cells, taken without her knowledge or consent in 1951, went on to become the first immortal human cells ever grown in the laboratory. Those cells, dubbed HeLa, became one of the most important tools in modern medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Though Henrietta died in 1951, her cells—alive and growing to this day—are still the most widely used in the world.
Henrietta’s family didn’t learn that the cells existed until the 1970s, when scientists wanted to do research on her children—Lawrence, David “Sonny” Jr., Deborah, and Zakariyya—to learn more about the remarkable “immortality” of Henrietta’s cell line. Her children were then used in research without their consent.
In August 2013, 62 years after Henrietta’s death, the Lacks family reached an historic and unprecedented agreement with the National Institutes of Health. After a German lab posted the full HeLa genome online for anyone to see, Henrietta’s descendants came together with the NIH to consider options for protecting the family’s privacy without hindering medical and scientific advancement. The result is the groundbreaking HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement.
Despite what the Lacks family has endured, they are proud to honor the memory of Henrietta and her unparalleled contributions to science. Their message is positive, optimistic, and—above all—a celebration of Henrietta’s life and legacy. They have visited hundreds of communities and campuses, where their appearances give audiences an unforgettable first-person perspective on the collision between ethics, race, and the commercialization of human tissue, and how their experiences have impacted the Lacks family from generation to generation.
Be sure to join us for this year's 65th Annual Meeting, to be a part of the Lacks Family's keynote address on Monday, August 7, 2023.