By Sloan Becker, age 10

Statue of Henrietta Lacks at Royal Fort House, Bristol. Photo by WikiMedia Commons

Henrietta Lacks received a posthumous award from the World Health Organization (WHO) in October 2021 finally acknowledging her legacy and large contribution to modern medicine. 

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who died from cervical cancer in 1951. Doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins Hospital took cancerous cells from her body to study without her consent. These special cells, now called HeLa cells, were the first successfully cloned cells, making them “immortal.”  

Scientists sold and studied these cells extensively for decades, leading to advancements in the treatments for leukemia, medication for HIV/AIDS, polio and HPV vaccines. Even today’s COVID-19 vaccines were developed with information from the HeLa cells. Mrs. Lacks’s family estate has recently called for acknowledgment of her contribution to medical sciences from which large corporations, such as Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., have greatly profited at her expense.

Glossary

Posthumous: Occurring or awarded after the death of the recipient