Some years afterwards, I read that the cell line came from a patient called Helen Lane. But it turns out that wasn’t her name. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating portrait of a woman and her time and place, a scientific investigation, and a moral tale.
Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia, the great-granddaughter of slaves on a tobacco plantation. Her education was cut short when she became pregnant by her cousin at the age of 14. In 1951, aged 31, with five children and syphilis, she felt a “knot” in her stomach. She went to Johns Hopkins, the only good hospital in Baltimore open to black patients. She had cervical cancer.
A tissue sample was taken before she started radium treatment. But the cells proved uniquely aggressive, both in vivo and in vitro. Even before Henrietta died nine months later, overwhelmed by metastatic cancer, the immortal cell line which bears her name was being used in labs around the world. HeLa cultures made it possible to test Salk vaccine and within a year to launch mass immunisation against polio.