Honoring African Americans in Science | Henrietta Lacks

Who Was Henrietta Lacks?

If you or your students have never heard the name Henrietta Lacks, you’re not alone.

Although her cells have benefitted each and every one of us, she remained an obscure pioneer in science. So, who was Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. In 1924, Henrietta’s mother died during childbirth, causing her father to relocate her family to Clover, Virginia.

In Clover, Henrietta and her nine siblings were split up and sent to various to be raised. On April 10, 1941, Henrietta married her husband, Day, and moved to Maryland. 

The couple had five children – Lawrence, Elsie, David Jr., Deborah, and Joseph.

Months after having her fifth child, Mrs. Lacks experienced pain in her abdomen and abnormal bleeding. She went to Johns Hopkins Hospital on February 1, 1951, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. 

Cervical cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the cells of the cervix. Nearly all cervical cancers are caused by long-lasting human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), “The evolution from the precancerous stage to cancer is slow, and routine annual screening makes this a curable cancer and totally preventable disease.” 

Unfortunately, this was not the case for Henrietta.

Honoring African Americans in Science Henrietta Lacks. Image of a black woman at a microscope

She was diagnosed in February of 1951. While receiving radiation cancer treatments, doctors removed tissue samples from her tumor and sent them to scientists for research purposes. This was done without her or the Lacks family’s knowledge or consent.  

A few short months later, Mrs. Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31. Her cancer spread throughout her body.

Her cells, however, continued to thrive in culture. Unlike most cells, that died after only a few days, Henrietta’s cells were immortal as they continued to divide and thrive in the lab.

While Black History Month serves as a great time to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, students can and should be taught about her at any time of the year. 

Introducing students to the ethical considerations surrounding the use of cell samples and discussing the impact of Lacks’ legacy on medical advancements can foster a deeper appreciation for the contributions of African Americans in science. 

In this blog post, we’ll honor African Americans in science Henrietta Lacks, but discussing her immortal cells, their lasting impact on medical research and scientific advancements, racism and ethical considerations in scientific research, and ideas for teaching about Henrietta Lacks in your science class. 

The Immortal HeLa Cells

At the heart of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy lies the extraordinary HeLa cell line. Derived from Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells that were sent to researchers without her or her family’s permission, these cells were named HeLa after Henrietta’s first and last names.

Unlike typical cells, HeLa cells exhibited an unprecedented ability to replicate endlessly in a petri dish, hence the term ‘immortal.’ 

Immortal Cells: Unlike typical cells, HeLa cells exhibited an unprecedented ability to replicate endlessly in a petri dish, hence the term 'immortal.' Image of HeLa cells labeled with fluorescent dye.
HeLa cells labeled with fluorescent dye

Dr. George Gey, the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins, multiplied a specific cell to ultimately create the HeLa cell line. 

As the impact of the cells on scientific research grew, so did the distribution of HeLa calls. In 1955, the cells were cloned. Since then, they have been used for a variety of purposes. 

Lacks’ Impact on Medical Research

Henrietta Lacks’ cells contributed to medical research for more than just cancer. The use of HeLa cells played a pivotal role in various scientific endeavors, including the development of the polio vaccine. 

The remarkable adaptability and rapid replication of Henrietta’s cells made them indispensable in virology and vaccine research. This timeline created by the NIH, details the use of HeLa cells for the following:

  • development of the polio vaccine
  • understand the effects of radiation on human cells
  • development of cancer research methods
  • the effect of zero gravity on human cells (yes, her cells were the first human cells to travel to outer space)
  • understanding treatments for blood disorders
  • determining how salmonella causes infection
  • slowing cancer growth
  • learning how cells age

And more than I could list here. The timeline also mentions that HeLa cells were used by three different teams of scientists who won Nobel prizes based on their research conducted on HeLa cells. 

In 2008, Dr. Harald Zur Hausen won the Nobel Prize for showing viruses can cause certain cancers. Dr. Zur Hausen’s work using human papillomaviruses-infected HeLa cells eventually led to the development of HPV vaccines. 

Image of the Covid 19 vaccine and a model of the coronavirus.

Most recently, HeLa cells were used to help develop the Covid-19 vaccines. 

When reflecting on the impact of HeLa cells on medical research, I am in awe of how so many of these relate to me directly. 

I encourage you to prompt your students to reflect on the direct connection that HeLa cells have on their lives and the well-being of themselves, their families, and their communities. 

Ethics in Scientific Research

The story of Henrietta Lacks brings to light profound ethical considerations within the medical community. 

Despite her own family being unaware (and living in poverty) for decades, Henrietta’s cells were widely distributed, raising questions about informed consent and financial compensation. 

Image of a document titled - informed consent. Text reads - lack of consent. Despite her own family being unaware (and living in poverty) for decades, Henrietta's cells were widely distributed, raising questions about informed consent and financial compensation. 

Unlike other research subjects, Lacks’ family members did not benefit financially from the commercialization of HeLa cells, emphasizing a historical injustice. 

This echoes the dark history of the Tuskegee Study5 Empowering Black History Month Science Lessons, underscoring the need for racial equity and ethical scrutiny within the medical profession. 

The unmarked grave of Henrietta Lacks and the recent involvement of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. in her story highlight the ongoing complexities surrounding the use of her cell samples. 

This part of Mrs. Lacks’ legacy is powerful for middle school classrooms. 

There is so much I don’t understand about my rights when it comes to stacks of papers I sign during doctor visits, before surgery, or when getting blood work. 

I have seen advertisements for research that offers subjects (people) compensation. But do those participants understand everything they’re signing in exchange for a few hundred dollars and bus fare?

Image of a woman getting blood drawn.

What I do understand is that Henrietta Lacks’ was a Black woman living in Virginia during Jim Crow. Many of the laws in Virginia at the time of her treatment and death centered around segregation of unequal treatment and lack of adequate resources for African Americans. 

This is important for middle schoolers to understand when learning of Henrietta’s legacy. 

As a middle school science teacher, you don’t have to have all the answers. You can still engage your students in reviewing documents, researching, and engaging in discussions related to racism, discrimination, and ethics in scientific research. 

Teaching HeLa in Middle School Science

I love teaching students about Henrietta Lacks. I’ve taught this topic to both middle schoolers and high schoolers. And because I’ve only ever taught in Title I schools, I know that all students can access this complex topic, regardless of their English language proficiencies, special needs, or reading levels. 

Image of a diverse group of students. Text reads - All students can learn about the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, regardless of their English language proficiencies, special needs, or reading levels.

Teaching students about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells is a multifaceted and unique way to engage students in content related to cells, research, ethics, and social justice. Here are a few ideas for how to teach about Henrietta Lacks in your science classroom. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a book that was later adapted into a movie featuring Oprah Winfrey. While the book is written at an 11th/12th-grade level, students can read pieces of the text to understand Henrietta’s story and its implications.

This pairs well with a movie viewing worksheet, comparing and contrasting the information presented in the book with what the movie portrays. Random House provides a teacher’s guide in the form of a free PDF.  

Check out these instructional resources pertaining to Henrietta Lacks from The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA) here. 

If you’re looking for a science reading comprehension resource that is differentiated and scaffolded, check out Lit Science’s Henrietta Lacks reading comprehension passage, available in PDF or a digital Google Slides Version.

Image of Henrietta Lacks science reading comprehension resource.

For more information on Henrietta Lacks, explore the following websites. 




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