In 1951, doctors removed Henrietta Lacks's cells without her consent. More than half a century later, companies have made millions from her cell culture, while few of Lacks's descendants can even afford insurance.
The unsettling story of Henrietta Lacks begins with an everyday occurrence: a trip to the doctor's office. The 30-year-old African-American's 1951 diagnosis of cervical cancer would change her life, and the damaged cells taken from her body without permission would alter the course of medical history. At a time when health-care reform is a key concern for the White House and millions of Americans, Lacks's story is a potent reminder of the injustices that were perpetrated by the health-care industry on the poor and uneducated not long ago.
Raised by her grandfather on a tobacco farm in Virginia, Henrietta Lacks was the granddaughter of slaves. She gave birth to her first child at 14 and later married the father of the baby, who happened to be her first cousin—not uncommon at the time. Shortly after Henrietta turned 30, she felt a knot in her lower stomach that she knew meant something was wrong. But with a husband and a house full of kids to take care of, Lacks could ill afford to worry for long; her family also had little money for a doctor's visit, and at the time, many hospitals offered African-American patients substandard treatment.