Part of the Family

Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks

Hello Everyone, here we are, it’s Friday! Your Executive Officers will be posting about a black historical figure that they’d like to honour each week for Black History Month.

Here’s who we’ve chosen:

Victoria Aurora Bennett-Salvador, who is your President has chosen Mary Seacole, who was a pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War, who as a woman of mixed race overcame a double prejudice.

Amir Iqbal, your Vice President Opportunities and Community has chosen Bernard Alexander Montgomery Grant who was a British Labour Party politician who was the Member of Parliament for Tottenham from 1987 to his death in 2000. As Amir is very interested in politics.

Polly Jones who is your Vice President Academic Experience has chosen Samuel Coleridge Taylor who was an English composer and conductor. Of mixed race birth, Coleridge-Taylor achieved such success that he was referred to by white New York musicians as the "African Mahler" when he had three tours of the United States in the early 1900s.

Runcie C.W. Chidebe your Vice President Student Voice, has chosen Olaudah Equiano who was sold into slavery as a child at the age of 11 by Europeans from Eboe region of the Kingdom of Benin the present day Nigeria, West Africa. Equiano purchased his freedom in 1766.

Stay posted to find out more each week!

Jinal Shah, Vice President Equity and Inclusion has chosen to discuss Henrietta Lacks:

“Being a Biomedical Student, I want to embrace and honour Back History Month in the name of
Henrietta Lacks because she was the subject of a medical experiment that is still saving lives today.”

Henrietta Lack born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia. Her family is uncertain how her name changed from Loretta to Henrietta, but she was nicknamed Hennie. She was an African American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized human cell line and one of the most significant cell lines in medical research. These cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey who created the cell line known as HeLa, which is still used for medical research. Henrietta Lacks was an accidental pioneer of modern-day medicine her cells are saving lives today even though she died in 1951.

Photograph or Henrietta Lacks

Ms. Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. On January 29, 1951, Ms. Lacks went to Johns Hopkins, the only hospital in the area that treated black patients, because she felt a "knot" in her womb. Her primary care doctor tested her for syphilis, which came back negative, and referred her back to Johns Hopkins. There, her doctor, Howard W. Jones, took a biopsy of a mass found on Lacks' cervix for laboratory testing. Soon after, Ms. Lacks was told that she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix. In 1970, physicians discovered that she had been misdiagnosed and had an adenocarcinoma. Ms. Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts as an inpatient and discharged a few days later with instructions to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up.  Just months before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore sliced pieces of tissue from her cancerous tumour without her consent — in effect, stealing them. It was another instance of decades of medical apartheid and clinical practices that discriminated against blacks. Ms. Lacks was not a slave, but parts of her cancerous tumour represent the first human cells ever bought and sold.

Her cells, known among scientists as HeLa, were unusual in that they could rapidly reproduce and stay alive long enough to undergo multiple tests. Lacks’ cells — now worth billions of dollars — live in laboratories across the world. They played an important part in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. The HeLa cell line has been used to develop drugs for treating herpes, leukaemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease. They’ve been influential in the study of cancer, lactose digestion, sexually transmitted disease and appendicitis.

Henrietta’s story is an example of the often-problematic intersection of morals, race and pharmaceutical, an interface to the dark history of abuse of, and experimentation on, African- Americans that ranges from the Tuskegee syphilis ponder to a 19th-century specialist testing with gynaecological medications on slave women without analgesics.
In 2013, researchers published the DNA sequence of the genome of a strain of HeLa cells. Subsequently, the Lacks family and the National Institutes of Health reached an agreement that gave the family some control over access to the cells’ DNA sequence. Furthermore, two family members joined the six-member committee which regulated access to the sequence data. 

It was not until 1996, 45 years after her death, was Ms. Lacks given recognition for her contribution to medical science when Morehouse School of Medicine held its first annual HeLa Women’s Health Conference. On October 11, 1996, the Mayor of Atlanta declared the date as Henrietta Lacks Day. In 1997, US Congressman Robert Ehrlich presented Ms. Lacks a congressional resolution recognizing her contributions to medical science and research. In 2010, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research established the annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture Series. In 2011, Morgan State University in Baltimore granted Ms. Lacks a posthumous honorary doctorate in public service. In 2014, Ms. Lacks was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.

Information from these sources:

BCUSU Black History Month logo


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