About Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks is a Virginia native, a Virginia hero, an African-American woman whose unique world-changing legacy has touched all of us, without most of us realizing it.

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, but quickly and affectionally came to be called Hennie by her family. After her mother’s death, she was raised by extended family members in the Clover community of Halifax County, Virginia. There, she lived in a former slave cabin known to the Lacks family as the Home-House, most of which still stands today, just yards away from Henrietta’s final resting place. She was Baptized in St. Matthew's Church in the Town of Clover, and educated in the same town. As a child, Henrietta worked the exhausting life of a tobacco farmer’s child alongside her cousins. She married and began her family in Clover, Virginia.

In 1941, Henrietta moved with her husband, David “Day” Lacks, and their first two children, Lawrence and Elsie, to Turner Station, near Baltimore, Maryland. They moved because of the unfairness of a culture and social system that gave little or no economic opportunity to African-Americans, and even less opportunity to African-American women. Her husband found work in the steel mills, and Henrietta continued raising her growing family, which soon included another daughter Deborah, and two more sons, David, known as “Sonny,” and Joseph, now known as Zachariah.

In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. There, just before her untimely death at the young age of 31, and unbeknownst to her, some of her cells were removed from her body for use in research. Also unbeknownst to the rest of the world at the time was that we had all received a miraculous gift in the form of human cells that did not die. Henrietta Lack’s cells, shortened in name to HeLa cells, and so disconnecting her full name from their power and promise for over half a century, became the first immortal cell line. This immortality allowed Henrietta’s cells to be replicated and distributed to researchers around the world, who could then test their theories and validate their results on an identical base line of living cells, suddenly advancing biotech research by leaps and bounds.

Over the decades, the HeLa cell would be named in over 11,000 patents, including just three years after Henrietta’s death, when her cells were used to develop the Polio vaccine from which we have all benefitted – us, our parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and all people of the world. HeLa cells have been used to research and develop new therapies to fight Cancer and AIDS, and in the effort to map the human genome, which holds the key to “personalized medicine” which could treat or even cure all of us of almost every ailment and disease over time.

And now, because Henrietta Lacks’s loving and giving spirit flows through her family legacy, we in the Commonwealth of Virginia are being given the opportunity to honor her world legacy in ways long overdue, and in the place that she would have appreciated most, her homeplace - Southern Virginia, Halifax County, Virginia. Henrietta Lacks’ family, in her honor, have chosen the Commonwealth of Virginia as the only place in the world to partner with and create a new life science research and cancer treatment center in the name of Henrietta Lacks – a heroic effort for a true hero.

Because of this, Henrietta Lacks’ life continues beyond her death in this world. Her biography will continue as long as mankind continues, because she has become a part of all of us, through the medical advances and cures her immortal cell line has given to all of us.