Polio Vaccine, Hela Developed From Cells of a Black Woman

Henrietta and David Lacks

Henrietta Lacks' Contribution to Science History

This is different than the usual tribute to Blacks for Black History Month.  This little known bit of history will take the reader aback, because it is scarcely talked or written about, but is one of the greatest scientific contributions in medical history.

Henrietta Lacks contributed, in a chain of events that would forever change medical history, a preventative cure for an ominous debilitating disease, that effected millions, all without her knowledge.

On February 1, 1951, days after a march by 10,000 people in New York for a cure for polio, Mrs. Lacks sought out medical attention due to a vaginal discharge at John Hopkins Hospital. Unfortunately, the news was not good, and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. After treatment she died on October 4, 1951.

Henrietta Lacks Legacy

Unbeknownst to Mrs. Lacks, a tobacco farmer, from Halifax County Virginia, cells were removed from her body before her death without her knowledge or consent, during a routine biopsy. Scientist noticed that the Lacks cells did something they've never seen before, they could be kept alive and grow!

Henrietta's cells were given the name HeLa using the first two letters of her first and last name. In 1954, three years after Mrs. Lacks demise the HeLa cells were used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio.

Afterwards, demand for the HeLa cells grew, and were put into mass production. Traveled the world and even into space, so basically she's the first black and woman to make the trip. This was done in an unmanned satellite to see whether human tissues could survive zero gravity.

Over a decade has passed and Henrietta Lacks cells are still alive, and still being used in research for cancer, AIDS, gene mapping and the effects of radiation and toxic substances on humans. The HeLa cells assisted chemist in research to test human sensitivity to tape, cosmetics, glue and many other products.

Finally Recognition

  • 1996 Moorhouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia recognized the Mrs. Henrietta Lacks' family, one husband and four children, for her continuing contribution to science.
  • 1997 A documentary aired spotlighting Mrs. Lacks contribution to science entitled "Modern Times: The way of All Flesh", which won the Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival, in 1998.
  • Since the 1950s numerous articles, in newspapers, magazines and scientific journals have been published. Along with books and academic publications.
  • The Lacks family has been honored at the Smithsonian Institute.
  • 2001 the National Foundation for Cancer Research announced a press release honoring "the late Henrietta Lacks for the contributions made to cancer research and modern medicine" on September 14 (the date was changed due to the horrific events of 9/11).

Henrietta Lacks, who died at age 31, whose ancestors were slaves that worked the tobacco fields of Virgina. Daughter of a railroad brakeman and one of ten children. Who would have known she would be in possession of life giving cells that grow outside the body and continue to do so to this day?

Despite the inconsideration and lack of patient doctor confidentiality, in removing the cells, who would have guessed that the body of a woman of thirty-one year old black woman would hold the key to prevent the spread of polio?

This tobacco farming black, wife and mother, in death, saved the lives and limbs of so many people for over a half a century. My personal thanks to Mrs. Henrietta Lacks and her family for her distinguished contribution to mankind.

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Comments 19 comments

And Let's not forget AIDS 4 years ago

A chilling legacy of the live polio vaccine may be the virus associated with AIDS. Edward Hooper's book "The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS" suggests that AIDS may be the result of a live virus polio vaccine administered in Africa in the 1950s. According to Hooper, the vaccine may have been contaminated with a simian (monkey) virus. This virus is thought to have evolved into the HIV virus.

Here's more Proof 4 years ago

When questions of vaccine efficacy have arisen, I've often been asked, "But what about polio? I remember the braces, the iron lungs, the crippled children. They disappeared after the Salk vaccine." The error is confusing correlation with cause and effect. The incidence of polio was decreasing before the Salk vaccine was administered. Following the administration of the Salk vaccine, there was an increase in the number of polio cases, followed by a continuation of the natural decline that pre-dated the vaccine. Proponents of polio vaccine conveniently ignore previous polio epidemics, where the disease all but disappeared in the absence of a vaccine.


You are a Liar 4 years ago

The polio vaccine did nothing to stop the spread of a disease that was already on its way out. But, the HeLa line of cells have grown to be immortal and currently contaminate over 80% of all cell lines in use today.

We have injected a cancer ridden obamination into every human being in this country and yet we wonder why we now have a 1 in 2 chance of developing cancer in our lifetime.

Fuck off.

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

I think it was kept secret because there is a moral responsibly that was not address in the action of removing a portion of a human's body without disclosure.

I feel the same re: your last comment. This is why a Black History month is needed. I feel there is a systematic removal of people of color from our American history. Thank you for taking your time to read and comment

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

It is truly amazing. Thank you for taking your time to read and comment

pmccray profile image

pmccray 4 years ago from Utah Author

Very true there is a big question of personal responsibility. Thank you for taking your time to read and comment

conradofontanilla profile image

conradofontanilla 5 years ago from Philippines

Nice post. A lot of lessons are still to be learned from Salk's research and inventions in developing his killed-virus polio vaccine. The obvious one is the eradication of polio. Scientific principles and moral issues are still to be elaborated.

kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 5 years ago from the Ether

wonderful hub. amazing isn't it? i learned about henrietta lack's cells when i was in microbiology...pretty amazing stuff. voted up!

Jean 6 years ago

Wow! Why so they keep this a secret? So many wonderful contribution like this were never entered into our textbooks when I was a child. They had us believing that only white people were creative an innovative. Shame on them!

pmccray profile image

pmccray 6 years ago from Utah Author

Thank you for your comment terced ojos, and no the irony is not lost on me. Thanks again for you read.

terced ojos profile image

terced ojos 6 years ago from terced_ojos@yahoo.com

Terced: I'm trying vehemently to mask my disdain for the devaluation of black lives by whites past, present and future.

Terced: I'm thinking to myself that if they wanted to know they would know; they don't care about us so it doesn't matter.

I wonder if some racists piece of garbage with polio would take issue with the fact that a "niggers" cells might be floating around in his or her body defeating their polio?

Ironic ain't it. That God would allow white people to benefit from the cells of some "nigger woman."?

Wonders never cease.

Good Hub.

white 6 years ago

wow! I never knew a black woman contributed to the making of a vaccine in such a way

adrienne2 profile image

adrienne2 6 years ago from Atlanta

Whoa You are a great researcher. This hub was very enlightening.

pmccray profile image

pmccray 6 years ago from Utah Author

I had never heard of this before my mother sent me the info. I'm not as upset as amazed at the scientific aspect of this piece. Thank you Micky for stopping by and commenting.

Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Great hub. Thanks for keeping her memory alive.

Jan 6 years ago

I didn't know anything about this before I read your hub. From what you say, however, the lady didn't suffer from the cell removal any more than she would otherwise have done through cancer.

Her next of kin should have been asked for permission but so many lives have been saved ...

IF she had have been asked whether her cells could be used to save thousands, if not millions of lives, then surely she would have said yes?

creativeone59 profile image

creativeone59 6 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

Thank y pmccray, I had read this story somewhere, but thank you for the reminder. Thanks for sharing. Godspeed. creativeone59

pmccray profile image

pmccray 6 years ago from Utah Author

You are so right. As I wrote this hub I could'nt help thinking of the Tuskegee experiments. I have a feeling that all the books written about Jonas Salks vaccine will fail to mention Ms. Lacks. If it wasn't for her cells man never would have walked the moon, this is why we must have a Black history month. Thanks for stopping by and reading and your comment, which was dead on.

BkCreative profile image

BkCreative 6 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

Sigh - more of the horrors of our history. This was all done - as so many other medical experiments - without permission of the 'victim' - who no doubt died an early painful death at the hands of the medical profession who continued to experiment on her.

I am an advocate of staying as far away from this medical profession as possible. All testing is done for the benefit of white males only - and then we are treated as if we are all white males - it is so ignorant.

Thanks for the hub. I've been aware of this but am glad to see it on hub pages.

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