Wonder Woman: The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 17, 2002

henrietta-lacks

On Feb. 1, 1951, Henrietta Lacks–mother of five, native of rural southern Virginia, resident of the Turner Station neighborhood in Dundalk–went to Johns Hopkins Hospital with a worrisome symptom: spotting on her underwear. She was quickly diagnosed with cervical cancer. Eight months later, despite surgery and radiation treatment, the Sparrows Point shipyard worker’s wife died at age 31 as she lay in the hospital’s segregated ward for blacks.

Not all of Henrietta Lacks died that October morning, though. She unwittingly left behind a piece of herself that still lives today.

While she was in Hopkins’ care, researchers took a fragment of Lacks’ tumor and sliced it into little cubes, which they bathed in nutrients and placed in an incubator. The cells, dubbed “HeLa” for Henrietta Lacks, multiplied as no other cells outside the human body had before, doubling their numbers daily. Their dogged growth spawned a breakthrough in cell research; never before could investigators reliably experiment on such cell cultures because they would weaken and die before meaningful results could be obtained. On the day of Henrietta’s death, the head of Hopkins’ tissue-culture research lab, Dr. George Gey, went before TV cameras, held up a tube of HeLa cells, and announced that a new age of medical research had begun–one that, someday, could produce a cure for cancer.

When he discovered HeLa could survive even shipping via U.S. mail, Gey sent his prize culture to colleagues around the country. They allowed HeLa to grow a little, and then sent some to their colleagues. Demand quickly rose, so the cells were put into mass production and traveled around the globe–even into space, on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity.

In the half-century since Henrietta Lacks’ death, her tumor cells–whose combined mass is probably much larger than Lacks was when she was alive–have continually been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits. Dr. Jonas Salk used HeLa to help develop his polio vaccine in the early ’50s. The cells are so hardy that they took over other tissue cultures, researchers discovered in the 1970s, leading to reforms in how such cultures are handled. In the biomedical world, HeLa cells are as famous as lab rats and petri dishes.

Yet Henrietta Lacks herself remains shrouded in obscurity. Gey, of course, knew HeLa’s origins, but he believed confidentiality was paramount–so for years, Henrietta’s family didn’t know her cells still lived, much less how important they had become. After Gey died in 1970, the secret came out. But it was not until 1975, when a scientifically savvy fellow dinner-party guest asked family members if they were related to the mother of the HeLa cell, that Lacks’ descendants came to understand her critical role in medical research.

The concept was mind-blowing–in a sense, it seemed to Lacks’ family, she was being kept alive in the service of science. “It just kills me,” says Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks-Pullum, now 52 and still living in Baltimore, “to know my mother’s cells are all over the world.”

In the 27 years since the Lacks family serendipitously learned of Henrietta’s unwitting contribution, little has been done to honor her. “Henrietta Lacks Day” is celebrated in Turner Station each year on Feb. 1. In 1996, prompted by Atlanta’s Morehouse College, that city’s mayor proclaimed Oct. 11 Henrietta Lacks Day. The following year, Congress passed a resolution in her memory sponsored by Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.), whose 2nd District includes Turner Station, and the British Broadcasting Corp. produced a documentary on her remarkable story. Beyond that, however, virtually nothing has been done to celebrate Lacks’ contribution–not even by Hopkins, which gained immeasurable prestige from Gey’s work with her cells.

Lacks-Pullum is bitter about this. “We never knew they took her cells, and people done got filthy rich [from HeLa-based research], but we don’t get a dime,” she says. The family can’t afford a reputable lawyer to press its case for some financial stake in the work. She says she has appealed to Hopkins for help, and “all they do is pat me on my shoulder and put me out the door.”

Hopkins spokesperson Gary Stephenson is quick to point out that Hopkins never sold HeLa, so it didn’t make money from Henrietta’s contribution. Still, he says, “there are people here who would like something done, and I’m hoping that at some point something will be done in a formal way to note her very, very important contribution.”

Lacks-Pullum shares those hopes, but she is pessimistic. “Hopkins,” she says, “they don’t care.”

Lost in the acrimony over ethical and financial issues stemming from Henrietta Lacks’ cells, though, is Henrietta Lacks herself. A descendant of slaves and slaveholders, she grew up farming the same land on which her forebears toiled–and that her relatives still farm today. As part of an aspiring black middle class with rural roots, she left her childhood home to join a migration to Baltimore, where Bethlehem Steel was eager to hire hard workers from the country. She was in the midst of realizing an American dream when her life was cut short. And her cells helped realize society’s larger dreams for health and knowledge. As such, she’s been called a hero, a martyr, even a saint. But during her life, as Ehrlich said to his colleagues in Congress, Henrietta Lacks “was known as pleasant and smiling, and always willing the lend a helping hand.” That she did, in more ways than she ever knew.

 

Trying to find Henrietta Lacks’ grave is a lesson in irony. She is now a world-famous woman, yet her body rests in an unmarked plot in a family burial ground next to her childhood house, now long abandoned and close to falling down. No one, not even her relatives, knows precisely which grave plot is hers.

The search starts in Clover, Va., where Henrietta grew up farming tobacco on her family’s land. It’s a small town of about 200 people in a region southwest of Richmond known as Southside. The first stop–Clover Cemetery, on the outskirts of town–is fruitless; plenty of Lackses but no Henrietta. A quick visit to the post office yields a clue, offered with matter-of-fact bluntness by a man at the copy machine.

“What did you say her name was? Henrietta Lacks? Was she black or white?”

Hearing the answer, he continues: “The cemeteries you can see from the road, they’re mostly for whites. You got to go back off the road to get to the black cemetery. So go back up that road and make a right on Lacks Town Road. A lot of blacks live up there. You can’t see the cemetery from the road, so you’ll have to ask people. But someone up there should be able to help you.”

Lacks Town is not really a town but a tiny community of relatives living along a one-mile dead-end road. Trailers, shacks, old log homes, and a ranch house or two are surrounded by small plots of farmland, barns, and machinery, with woods filling in the gaps. It’s part of Clover, but Lacks Town clearly has a distinct identity. “They stick together down there,” a local woman from the other side of Clover explains later.

In short order, someone helps me out: Otis Ferrell Jr., a young man, probably in his 30s, who immediately recognizes the proffered name.

“Oh, the lady with the cancer cells,” he exclaims. “Yeah, she’s buried up there.” Ferrell points to the top of a hill in a tree-cluttered cow pasture, gesturing toward two downed trees, clearly visible from the road, giant gray hulks lying on their sides next to a large rusty-roofed abandoned building.

“That’s where they whupped the slaves,” he says candidly (though falsely, his elders later explain). “And one day the trees just came down. The cemetery is just past them and that old house. Yeah, she’s up there, but the grave’s unmarked. Uncle Clifton knows which one it is.”

Clifton Garrett is Henrietta Lacks’ cousin, now in his 80s. He lives nearby, about a quarter mile down from Lacks Town Road, and he’s burning the leaves in his yard while heating up the barbecue grill. “What, you going to build a memorial?” he retorts when asked if he knows which grave is Henrietta’s, in a tone that suggests it’s high time someone did. As smoke and embers billow around, he says he’s not exactly sure which grave is hers. “I know where her mother is buried,” he says. “She must be close by.”

Garrett gives a poignant tour of the land where Henrietta Lacks is buried. The property, he says, belonged to Tommy Lacks, who, along with his two brothers, was a patriarch of Clover’s African-American Lackses. Tommy was Henrietta’s grandfather, and he cared for her and her siblings after their mother died.

“Henrietta was raised up in that house, and her mother was born in it,” Garrett says as he strolls past the dilapidated building. “It’s called the Old Home House. It was built in slave times. Hadn’t nobody lived in this house in many years. Ain’t nobody to take care of it, and it just started falling down. But back then, they kept everything clean. When we was children, we played together here. There was a henhouse, an icehouse, a corn silo, a stable. But now there’s nothing left of anything.”

It’s hard to say how many ancestors are laid to rest in the burial ground; many of the graves are unmarked, and the sites have long been trampled by cows. “They knocked the rocks away when they came in and cleaned up with a bulldozer,” Garrett explains. “This was a big family,” he continues. “Everybody in this cemetery is related one way or another. When they die, they bring them here because this is the family cemetery.”

Henrietta’s mother, Eliza Pleasant, was buried here in 1924 after she died in Roanoke, Va., giving birth to her 10th child. “I remember when they brought her here,” Garrett says. “I was only about 2 or 3 years old, but I remember it. She had a coffin and they opened it, and a little light in the coffin came on. My memory’s good.”

Eliza’s husband, John Randall Pleasant, worked for the railroad in Roanoke, where Henrietta was born in 1920. When Eliza passed away, John moved their children back to the Old Home House to be raised by their grandfather, Tommy. Eliza’s grave has a headstone: eliza, wife of j.r. pleasant. jul 12, 1886.-oct. 28, 1924. gone but not forgotten. Indentations in the earth indicate five other unmarked graves in two rows behind the headstone. One of them is John’s. One of them is Henrietta’s. Neither Garrett nor any other family members I was able to find in Clover or in Baltimore knows which is which.

Clifton Garrett did know Henrietta, though, and remembers her fondly. “She was just an average child. A nice friendly girl and everything. That’s all I can tell you. We would play out in the yard, go to school.” Going to Clover School, which was for black children and offered instruction through seventh grade, meant a two-mile walk, taking shortcuts through fields, forests, and backyards–and right past Clover Elementary School, then white-only. Garrett still remembers the names of his teachers and the school’s principal, and that the principal’s son was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Henrietta helped on the farm until she went up to Baltimore,” Garrett says. That happened in 1943, a short while after her husband moved there for work for Beth Steel. Garrett moved north too, for a job at Beth Steel making nails in the wire mill. “After I got grown, then I went up there. A lot of people from around here did. There were company barracks to stay in, so we used to live in Sparrows Point until we moved to Turner Station. Henrietta’s husband, David, worked on the shipyard. He was a hard worker. And Henrietta, she was a nice lady. Nice as she could be. Very friendly. Very friendly, she was.”

The dredged-up memories lead Garrett to muse aloud, about how some part of his cousin still thrives. “Her cells are still living,” he says, gazing at the ground near her grave. He shakes his head. “She’s dead, but her cells are still living,” he says again, and then is silent.

 

Gary Lacks, Henrietta’s nephew, cares for his elderly mother, Gladys Lacks, in Lacks Town. Like many in Clover, he’s a religious man, which gives him a unique perspective on his aunt’s story.

“I go back to the Book of Genesis when God created man,” he says, his voice quickly rising in a crescendo of fervor. “He created him to live forever, really, but man ate up what God told him he couldn’t eat, and a process of death took over his body. But the possibility was in man that he could live–and if he could live, then his parts could live.” In Gary Lacks’ eyes, his aunt’s immortal cells are realizing God’s original intent for the human race.

Roberta Brooks’ view of Henrietta is more down to earth. “I worked in the field with Henrietta and Tommy and most of the Lacks Town folks when I was young,” recalls Brooks, another relative who lives near Clover. “I used to hang around more at the Old Home House than at my own house. We’d walk six miles to play together. We used to play on the creek, be teenagers together. Singing, playing horseshoes and ball games, shucking corn. There was lots to do. Children today come home and watch TV, but we had everything to do.”

As Brooks’ contemporaries got older, many took jobs in Baltimore. “A bunch of them in Lacks Town were working at Sparrows Point,” she says. “They were good jobs, about the best jobs paying, and they hired you quick there. They’d stay at the barracks, work all week, then return back to Clover for the weekend. And a lot of them stayed–and are living there still.”

Then Brooks touches on a sensitive subject–how Clover’s black Lackses and white Lackses are related. “When you get over in Lacks Town, oh, you don’t know who’s who,” she says. “It’s a big screwed-up thing. All the white Lackses and all the black Lackses, they’re all the same people. We all came up like family together, worked together and everything. And nobody married. Had bunches of children here and there and never married. It’s how it is. It’s a mess. And it’s just so deep, you can’t separate it.”

The family history informs Brooks’ perspective on race relations: “That why I say, we’re all just human beings. Not black, not white. Just human beings. So it’s all about respect. That’s it. Respect.”

Gladys Lacks suffered a stroke last year. Her mind and eyes are as clear as day, but she has difficulty communicating. When it comes to the family’s tangled history, though, her two words speak volumes. “Master Ben,” she says, and leaves it at that.

Records at the Halifax County courthouse offer further explanation. Ben Lacks and Albert Lacks, who were white (and related, although the African-American Lackses no longer recall how), owned the land Henrietta’s family worked and her descendants work still. When her grandfather, Tommy, married in 1903, he listed his parents as “Albert and Maria.” Tommy’s brother, James Lacks, married twice; the first time, he lists “Ben and Maria” as his parents, but the second time his parents are listed as “Albert and Maria.” Both white Lacks willed land to their black children. Albert’s 1888 will gave 10 acres each “from what is known as the Home Tract” to Tommy, James, and their brother Peter; Ben’s will of 1907 gave more land to Tommy and James.

“All of them hooked up together. They’re kin,” says William Morton, Peter Lacks’ grandson. Morton lives near Clover, having moved back after several decades in Baltimore, working at Sparrows Point (“Practically all of these fellows around here worked on the Point,” he says) and later for Morgan State University. Although records do not indicate Peter’s parentage, Morton says his grandfather “got land because he was kin to the owners.” Among Clover’s Lackses, he says, echoing his cousin Roberta Brooks, “that’s just the way it is.”

 

In Deborah Lacks-Pullum’s estimation, her parent’s middle-class aspirations in coming to Baltimore were realized. “We weren’t poor,” she says. “We were living comfortably.”

Henrietta held down the home on New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turner Station while her husband, David, earned decent wages at the shipyard. Folks from Clover, in town to start jobs on the Point, would stay over until they could find their own housing. Before he came to Baltimore, David Lacks “was the hardest working man in Clover, working 15 acres by himself,” Lacks-Pullum says. Once here, he and Henrietta enjoyed a sterling reputation in the community as gracious, generous people.

“The door was always open for new arrivals from Clover,” says Barbara Wyche, a Morgan State lecturer who has dedicated much time and effort to studying Henrietta Lacks. The link to the family’s Virginia roots stayed strong, Wyche says–“Henrietta went home every summer and farmed.” It’s still strong: Deborah Lacks-Pullum frequently visits relatives in Clover.

After Henrietta died, David Lacks raised the children–Lawrence, Elsie (who died at the age of 15, a few years after Henrietta passed away), David Jr., Deborah, and Zakariyya–by himself, just as Henrietta’s grandfather had done after his wife died. They remained a happy family, though they missed their mother.

The news that Henrietta’s cells had been taken and used for research without their knowledge, though, cast a cloud over the family. David Lacks, Henrietta’s husband, doesn’t even like to talk about it. “He’s tired of talking–it’s the same thing, over and over,” she says. By default, Lacks-Pullum has become the family spokesperson when it comes to Henrietta–and she herself is getting weary. “I’m just tired of my family getting walked over,” she says. “It hurts.”

Recognition has been slow in coming, but the future holds some promise. Rebecca Skloot, a Pittsburgh-based science writer, has spent the last three years researching and writing a comprehensive book, HeLa: The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, that’s due to be published by Times Books next year. And Charlene Gilbert, a Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker, is hard at work on a documentary titled Colored Bodies: Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells.

Back in Clover, Gary Lacks is roaming the Old Home House, trying to avoid the holes in the floorboards. He’s explaining how the house and the family burial ground have fallen into disrepair. “There’s no one to keep it up,” he says. “People only think about it when they come up here to bury someone, then they forget about it until the next time. They let the cows come in, and the cows keep it clean, keep the bushes down.”

It wouldn’t take much money to save the Old Home House, he says, and even less to keep up the cemetery, find Henrietta’s grave, give it a headstone. But people don’t have much money in Lacks Town. He hopes that with the attention generated by the book and the film–and with all the millions of dollars at Johns Hopkins’ disposal–resources will become available to give his aunt’s final resting place the honor it deserves. He’s hopeful, but he isn’t holding his breath.

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