The Mother of Modern-Day Genetics: Henrietta Lacks. Lived: 1920-1951
When tobacco farmer Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 30 in 1951, all she wanted to do was get better. Sadly, after eight months of radiation and surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Lacks and her tumor-riddled body lost the battle with the disease.
However, unbeknownst to her and her family, her cells lived on — right up until today. Known as HeLa cells (a combo of the first two letters of her first and last name), they have been multiplying since the sample was (secretly) taken from one of Lacks’ tumors and sent to Dr. George Gey’s tissue-culture research lab back in the 1950s. Not only did Lacks’ cells help scientists test the polio vaccine, HeLa cells were also sent into space.
Unfortunately, Lacks’ family didn’t find out about the grand experiment till the early 1970s when a researcher from Johns Hopkins called them. But now Rebecca Skloot’s recently released “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” will ensure history knows the unprecedented role Lacks played — and how her body revolutionized modern science.