ARTICLE

Honor Henrietta Lacks

Celebrating Lacks’ life offers opportunities to teach science and ethics.

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital on October 4, 1951, not knowing that her cells, called HeLa cells, would live on in laboratories all over the world. The first “immortal” human cells ever grown in culture, HeLa cells were—and remain—central to numerous scientific innovations and discoveries, including, says science writer Sara Zielinski, “cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.” It was not until 1974, however, that the world—and the Lacks family—became aware that HeLa cells came from Henrietta. The cells were taken and grown without Lacks’ or her family’s permission or knowledge. The family received no monetary compensation from laboratories and drug companies; only recently has their legal right to oversee the use of HeLa cells in medical research been acknowledged.

Rebecca Skloot details this amazing—and often painful—story in her award-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book makes a wonderful springboard for discussions concerning civil rights and medical ethics and the science behind these miraculous cells. It reflects Skloot’s painstaking efforts to understand how Henrietta’s family felt (and feels) about the violation of her medical privacy and personhood, and to imagine how Henrietta herself might feel about her cells being used for medical advances such as the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, and the creation of drugs that treat herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia and Parkinson's disease.

Two years ago, the multicultural club and biology faculty at my school (Evans High School in Evans, Ga.) set aside a day to celebrate the life of Henrietta Lacks, asking students and staff to observe her memory by wearing red. Why red? After Henrietta’s death, the attending doctor’s lab assistant, Mary, was sent to collect and label a sample of her now-famous cells. Mary went to the morgue where Henrietta’s autopsy was taking place. When she saw the body, Skloot writes, “Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. ‘When I saw those toenails...I thought, oh jeeze, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting and painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.’”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks keeps Henrietta’s story alive in the hearts and minds of all who read it. Sharing her story can give students insight into the life of a black woman at the mercy of powerful doctors and scientists in an age of racial segregation when the poor were routinely used as research subjects. It also honors a woman who, for decades, was a nameless ingredient in a laboratory.

Want to start a Wear Red Day in honor of Henrietta Lacks at your school? Check out this sample plan:

  1. Advertise your Wear Red Day event starting in late September. Hang posters around the school, broadcast announcements each morning and contact local television and radio stations. Encourage everyone to wear red, in accordance with school dress code.
  2. Hand out ribbons the day before (or the morning of) to biology students, faculty and staff. Wear red ribbons—even paper red ribbon will do—to honor Henrietta Lacks and to initiate conversations about her with students who are not taking biology.
  3. Prepare a few PowerPoint slides about Henrietta and share throughout the school.  Teachers in all disciplines will spend a few minutes at the beginning of class sharing the PowerPoint. 
  4. Play swing music by Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Benny Goodman during lunch to give students a sense of the era in which Henrietta lived.
  5. Plan special projects for students to complete that will coincide with Common Core or standards for your particular subject matter.

Want to know more about Henrietta Lacks and how to use this story in your classroom? Check out these resources:

  • Excerpt from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

References

Skloot, R. (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.

Zielinski, S. (2010, January 22). Smithsonian.com. Retrieved September 29, 2011, from Science and Nature: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Henrietta-Lacks-Immortal-C….

McCullough teaches high school biology in Georgia. 

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