Medicine - Women

Henrietta Lacks
August 1, 1920 to October 4, 1951

While in her late 20's, Henrietta Lacks developed an aggressive and severe form of cervical cancer. She died on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Months before her death, her doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland removed cancer cells from her cervix and gave them to the hospital’s research lab.
Before Ms. Lacks, scientist could not keep human cells alive outside of the human body for any significant period of time. They tried growing human cells in a lab but for decades were unable to do so. They needed to keep cells alive to study and learn from them. Ms. Lacks’ cells proved to be a tremendous benefit to scientists and the medical world.  When cultured, her cells not only lived for several hours, they doubled in number every 24 hours and continued to double in number as long as they had nutrients. These were the first immortal human cells ever grown in a culture. HeLa is the scientific name for Ms. Lacks' cells. The name is taken from the first two letters of her first name and the first two letters of her last name.

More than 60 years later, HeLa cells continue to be used all over the world. It is estimated that more than one trillion cells have been grown around the world.  HeLa cells were used to develop the polio vaccine. They were used to research and study cancer, AIDS, hemophilia, leukemia, and the effects of radiation and drugs on cells. They were flown into space and tested for the effects of zero gravity on human cells. Treatments for herpes and other STD’s were developed using HeLa cells.

There is however, controversy involving the cells. When cancer cells were removed from Ms. Lacks and given to the lab for research, the doctor did not ask her permission nor did he tell her how the cells would be used. This was and is a common practice. Labs and the medical community around the world made millions if not billions of dollars from selling, growing, shipping, and from the general use of her cells. Her children never received financial compensation and many of the family members do not have health insurance and cannot benefit from the treatments developed from their mother’s cells.

Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave next to her mother in Clover, Virginia. On May 30, 2010, a headstone was placed at her gravesite inscribed with the words:

"In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many. Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever. Eternal love and admiration from your family.”

Inscribed on the history marker are the words:


Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

Born in Roanoke on 1 Aug. 1920, Henrietta Pleasant lived here with relatives after her mother’s 1924 death.  She married David Lacks in 1941 and, like many other African Americans, moved to Baltimore, MD for wartime employment.  She died of cervical cancer on 4 Oct. 1951. Cell tissue was removed without permission (as usual then) for medical research. Her cells multiplied and survived at an extraordinarily high rate, and are renowned worldwide as the “HeLa line”, the “gold standard” of cell lines. Jonas Salk developed his polio vaccine with them. Henrietta Lacks, who in death saved countless lives, is buried nearby.

Top L:
 Henrietta Lacks, public domain. R: Grave headstone. 

Second L: Family Cemetery. R: HeLa cells, public domain. R: Street on which Henrietta lived. 

Third L: Four-room wood plank family home were Henrietta lived also a former slave quarters. 
 Historical marker dedicated on July 29, 2011.  

Skloot, Rebecca. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Crown Publishers, 2010. Print.

Batts, Denise Watson. "After 60 Years of Anonymity Henrietta Lacks has a Headstone." Web  


Hudson, Tiffany. "Marker Recognizes Clover Woman's Contribution to Science." Web. 


Adam Curtis. Dir. BBC, 1998. Web. Film.

Site Visits
Cemetery and Gravesite. Clover, VA. 
Home Visit. Clover, VA. 
Street Sign. Clover, VA. 
Historical Marker. Clover, VA. 


Family Cemetery, Clover, VA


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