Science Finally Gives Credit to Woman Who Gave Us Her DNA

by Amy LaCount

On a day-to-day basis, my feelings towards science are complicated at best.

As a biology major in college, I’m in constant duress – by science’s unforgiving long hours, its strenuous lab reports, its difficult tests, its high standards. As a member of the general public, however, I can’t ignore science’s unfailing neglect of female scholars; studies show that prestigious scientific honors are awarded to males more than 95% of the time (ugh, right?). 

But who can deny that science is one of the most beautifully revolutionary, thoroughly fascinating subjects to study in the world? Today, science deserves three cheers, because it’s finally giving recognition to a woman who’s been denied them for years.

Ever heard of HeLa cells? They’re part of the famous cell line that’s used all the time for scientific research – the oldest and most commonly used human cell lineage. But have you heard of Henrietta Lacks, the amazing woman whose DNA has been used prolifically since the early ’50s? Did you know that she never consented to give up her genome for study?

Doesn’t this all sound ridiculously unfair, and moreover, unlawful? Totally. Is it a rare occurrence for women in the field of science? Not at all. In DNA research, plagiarizing the hard work of women is all too common. Rosalind Franklin, the biophysicist and crystallographer whose diffraction images of DNA led to Watson and Crick’s model of the double helix, had her research shown to Watson without her knowledge or consent, and he ended up with all the credit for the discovery (Today, Franklin’s name is taught along with Watson’s and Crick’s in life science classes, and Watson has been outed as a racist asshole.)

Franklin’s DNA X-Ray

Henrietta Lacks was a devoted wife and mother of five children living in Virginia in the mid 20th century. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 31, just four months after giving birth to her youngest child. She had to undergo cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, since it was the only place near the family that would even treat black patients. During radiation procedures, samples of Henrietta’s cervix were removed (of course, without her consent) and given to Dr. George Otto Gey, who replicated them successfully in vitro. HeLa cells replicate at rates much higher than the average human’s, making them invaluable for research. Gey, pleased with his success, donated her cells to any scientist who requested them – leading to virologist Jonas Salk’s fruitful testing of the polio vaccine, along with other major developments in cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, and more. Her cells have been used in a whopping 76,000 studies!

HeLa cells – check out that rate of replication, oh boy!

Until 1973, Lacks’ family didn’t even know her cells were being used in some of the greatest scientific advancements in history. One of her grandchildren, Jeri, told The New York Times 40 years ago, “The biggest concern was privacy – what information was actually going to be out there about out grandmother, and what information they can obtain from her sequencing that will tell them about her children and grandchildren and going down the line.”

Henrietta with her husband, David Lacks.

Journalist Rebecca Skloot published a book in 2010 that became a bestseller (which is now being optioned for a movie by the unparalleled Oprah) and exposed some of the ethical questions surrounding HeLa cells, called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (Get it? It’s a science joke. The cells are immortal because they keep replicating. Laugh with me.) Skloot worked closely with family members for the expose, trying to make up, if only just a little bit, for how science took advantage of their ancestor.

Yesterday, FINALLY, the National Institutes of Health announced that genetic research based on Lacks’s DNA would “include acknowledgement in published form of the woman and her life.” The agreement between the NIH and the Lacks family has been in the works since March, which was when German researchers published Lacks’s entire genome sequence without consulting her family – which is now thankfully illegal, and removed from pubic databases. Before any new NIH-funded research on HeLa cells can be approved, it will now have to be approved by a board including two Lacks family members. 

Henrietta’s descendants

NIH director Francis Collins said what we’re all thinking: “We should all count Henrietta Lacks and her family among the greatest philanthropists of our time, when you consider how they have contributed to the advancement of science and human health.” 


Sources: The Guardian, The Atlantic

Photos via The Atlantic, Smithsonian,, Wikipedia, NPR, JBrooks Blog

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