In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the few hospitals to attend to black patients at the time, for treatment of cervical cancer.
After a biopsy, it was soon discovered that the young mother of five had cells that differed from any others previously studied: where other cells would die, Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours. The cells were nicknamed HeLa and are still used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans.
Lacks died on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Lacks was never informed that her cells had been harvested and her family was never compensated for the incredible scientific breakthrough she inadvertently provided to modern medicine. The issue of compensation is still ongoing.