Published by the St. Louis American, August 13, 2023
I would say that the family of Henrietta Lacks finally got some measure of justice–but I’m not certain.
I don’t know if the financial compensation they received is fair because the recent settlement reached is not being disclosed. I can say that what happened to Lacks back in 1951 was unjust, unfair, unethical and definitely racist.The news of the financial settlement came on Henrietta’s birthday; she would’ve been 103 years old on August 1, 2023. Her descendants traveled a long, rocky journey to attain the recognition the she deserves and compensation she deserves for the illegal sale of her cells, branded as HeLa cells.
Over the years, the Lacks family members experienced health issues while having no health insurance. They would
have benefited from a swift and just settlement.
The biotech giant Thermo Fisher Scientific had the audacity to ask previous courts to dismiss the case. It argued
that the family’s claims were too old. No, TFS, what’s outdated is racism that continues to perpetuate racial
disparities and inequities in this country.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor, Black tobacco farmer in Virginia when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of
cervical cancer. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed cells from her body without her knowledge or her
Amazingly, her cells lived outside her body and reproduce—the only human cell of its kind to ever do so. She died
after a few sessions of radiation at 34 years old. Her family didn’t learn her cells were being used and sold until
decades later. It is estimated that billions of dollars have been made off the HeLa cells.
The stolen cells and their commercialization still raises serious ethical concerns, along with the persistent issues
related to how Black and poor people are treated in the U.S. medical industrial complex. Horror stories about the
experimentation on Black bodies are no secret.
They’ve been passed down by African American families and communities for generations. They are well
documented in journals and books such as Harriet Washington’s ”Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical
Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” published in 2007.
It has also been well documented how HeLa cells have made life-saving differences in medicine. The genetic
marvel has appeared in more than 111,000 scientific publications and led to over 17,000 patents. Richard Axel and
Harald zur Hausen received Nobel prizes for their research related to the cells.
The HeLa cells have resulted in countless medical and scientific breakthroughs including research about the
human genome, HIV/AIDS and the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines. Henrietta’s were the first
human cells to go into space in 1960.
Yet there has been resistance to admitting the theft and repairing the wrongdoing from Johns Hopkins Hospital to
Thermo Fischer Scientific. The ruthless inhumane way that Black and poor people have been treated in this
country, particularly in the medical and judicial systems, must be fully addressed.
Henrietta Lacks should be a household name and her contributions well known. This is not just Black herstory. This
is world history.