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Henrietta Lacks: The Person Behind the HeLa Cell Line

February 2, 2010

Henrietta Lacks | Image by Photo courtesy the Lacks family

The internet is blowing up these days over Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cancer cells were used in the 1950s to produce culture media that allowed major scientific advancements ever since. The reason for the interest, presumably, is the release of a new book about Lacks and her scientific significance by Rebecca Skloot. Back in 2002, City Paper published a feature story about Henrietta Lacks, the person, a piece that gave readers a chance to consider the moral complexities of her story, which tend to produce a mix of conflicting emotions seasoned with wonder over how a normal, everyday person could, in death, end up being connected to such towering achievements in science and medicine. Van Smith recounts his reporting:

In 2002, I made two trips to Clover, her hometown, to try to learn more about her as a person, as opposed to her cancer cells, the significance of which was already well known. In the process, I was able to gather enough facts to tell her story and that of her family; their feelings about the use of her cells for medical advancement; the state of her grave and of her family’s property in Clover; the lack of recognition she, as a person, has suffered despite her after-death contributions to science; and, as best I could, her genealogy and what it says about the history of race relations in the rural South.

See Wonder Woman:  The Life, Death, and Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks, Unwitting Heroine of Modern Medical Science by Van Smith, and photos by John Ellsberry.

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