Black Women + Reproductive Justice

Henrietta Lacks, Subjectivity, & The Medical Exploitation of Black Women

Recent estate settlement yields the importance and racially-rooted legacy of the medical apartheid on Black women.

Quintessa L. Williams
Published in
5 min readAug 3, 2023

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Black Woman Health Assessment via white medical lens by Brian Stauffer | Photo Courtesy of The Oprah Daily

On January 29th, 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks, an African American wife, and mother of five, checked into John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland to treat what she described as a “knob” in her womb and vaginal bleeding. John Hopkins was one of few to treat low-income African Americans in the fifties.

Her doctor, Howard W. Jones performed a biopsy and found a mass on Lack’s cervix and sent it for laboratory testing. Lacks was later informed that a malignant epidermoid carcinoma had been located in her cervix. Lacks would go on to receive radium tube insertion treatments for the next seven months until later admitted again in August for severe abdominal pain, where she received inpatient blood transfusions.

However, Lacks was unaware that during her treatments that two samples (one healthy, one cancerous) had been taken from her cervix without her knowledge or permission. Eight months after receiving treatment for a misdiagnosed condition, Henrietta Lacks passed away on October 4th, 1951. An autopsy later revealed that Lacks had adenocarcinoma and the cancer had permeated throughout her whole body.

Ironically on the same day, Dr. George Gey appeared on national television with a vial of Henrietta’s cells, calling them HeLa cells. “It is possible that, from a fundamental study such as this, we will be able to learn a way in which cancer can be completely wiped out,” he said.

The cell culture was named after the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’ first and last name.

The HeLa, an immortalized cell line, is the oldest and most commonly used cell line in scientific studies. The extensive use of the cell line has informed what can be durable or prolific in researching vaccinations and viruses such as polio, oropouche, and cancer. The cell line is also useful in developing better techniques for staining and counting chromosomes.

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Quintessa L. Williams
ZORA
Writer for

Afra-American Journalist 📝📚| #WEOC | Blacktivist | EIC of TDQ | Editor for Cultured & AfroSapiophile. Bylines in The Root, MadameNoire, ZORA, & Momentum.