Who Was Henrietta Lacks and Why is She Important?


Who Was Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five children when she was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 1951. She died only 8 months later, but her cells are very much still alive. During her treatment, some of her cancer cells were collected for the doctors to research. Back at the lab, the researchers discovered that her cells replicated faster than any other sample (most samples died after 24 hours).

What Are He-La Cells?

Researchers and labs all over the world used these quickly-replicating cells, now called He-La cells, to study everything from vaccines to involvement in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies before her family ever found out what had happened. To date, there have been somewhere around 75,000 studies utilizing Lacks’ cells.


When the family found out that her cells are making laboratories money and are the foundation of several scientific advancements, but Henrietta’s own descendants struggle to afford basic health care, they rightfully sought restitution. In 2021, the Lacks family sued biotechnical company Thermo Fischer Scientific for nonconsensual use of her cells. At the time of this writing, no resolution has been met yet.

However, moved by her story, author Rebecca Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which brought to light all the ethical complications of this case. After the book became a New York Times bestseller, she launched the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which she funds herself. The Foundation provides grants to Lacks’ immediate family members, as well as other people who have been effected by biomedical research projects with questionable (or non-existent) ethical implications.