The Lasting Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

At first glance, HPV cancer prevention and Black History Month may not appear to go hand-in-hand. But consider the story of Henrietta Lacks and the impact she has had on health and medicine for 72 years and counting.

Lacks, a Black American woman and a young mother of five children, visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in January 1951 complaining of vaginal bleeding. Upon examination, doctors found a large, malignant tumor on her cervix. Lacks began radium treatment for her cervical cancer but passed away nine months after her diagnosis.

While Lacks’ life was cut short, her legacy lives on today in the form of HeLa cells (derived from the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last names). During her treatment, medical researchers took samples of Lacks’ cancerous tumor and found that, unlike cells from other patients, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied endlessly in the laboratory.

Unknown to her family until 1973, Lacks’ cells were mass produced and have been used in research efforts around the world. Her cells paved the way for eradicating polio, mapping the human genome, developing medications to treat HIV, AIDs and cancer, researching COVID-19 and, of great interest to us at Path to a Bright Future, discovering the link between HPV and cervical cancer, which led to the creation of the HPV vaccine.

Portrait of Henrietta Lacks

Portrait by Kadir Nelson

In recent years, Lacks and her lasting legacy have been recognized in the form of a portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a best-selling book by author Rebecca Skloot, and a movie by the same name. In December 2022, the city of Roanoke, Virginia, Lacks’ birthplace, announced that a statue of Lacks will replace a monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The statue is scheduled to be completed in October 2023 in Henrietta Lacks Plaza, previously known as Lee Plaza.

The family of Henrietta Lacks is committed to preserving her legacy. They are working to educate generations on the impact of her life, including her contributions to health care, equity, social justice and the effort to eliminate cervical cancer.

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