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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