In 1951, at the age of 30, Henrietta Lacks, the descendant of freed slaves, was diagnosed with cervical cancer—a strangely aggressive type, unlike any her doctor had ever seen. He took a small tissue sample without her knowledge or consent. A scientist put that sample into a test tube, and, though Henrietta died eight months later, her cells—known worldwide as HeLa—are still alive today. They became the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture and one of the most important tools in medicine: Research on HeLa was vital to the development of the polio vaccine, as well as drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson's disease; it helped uncover the secrets of cancer and the effects of the atom bomb, and led to important advances like cloning, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. Since 2001 alone, five Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research involving HeLa cells.
There's no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta's cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all the HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons—the equivalent of at least 100 Empire State Buildings.
Today, nearly 60 years after Henrietta's death, her body lies in an unmarked grave in Clover, Virginia. But her cells are still among the most widely used in labs worldwide—bought and sold by the billions. Though those cells have done wonders for science, Henrietta—whose legacy involves the birth of bioethics and the grim history of experimentation on African-Americans—is all but forgotten. Start reading her story