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Henrietta lacks ... or does she?

God chooses the meek to do mighty works.

Born in Clover, Va., a town built on the backs of African-American tobacco farm workers, like her parents, she grew up poor, and the future held little promise for greater things.   Then cancer made a swift strike.   Henrietta died, before she ever got a chance to really live, Oct. 4, 1951, at the age of 31, leaving behind her husband and five children, three still in diapers. Her family could afford no tombstone for her grave.    

But life is filled with ironies.   The twist in her bleak story is a seemingly self-serving act perpetrated upon her by a white, male physician. While examining her, he took a cell sample from her tumor, without her knowledge or consent, and took it to researchers down the hall at Johns Hopkins University.

Some people, when hearing Henrietta's story, cry racism.   They get stuck on the suppressive nature of the pre-civil rights movement and sift the complexities of the situation down to white versus black.   In that case, Henrietta's life amounts to nothing more than a sad, pale blip on history's radar; only one of many examples of maltreatment of African-Americans at the hands of the white establishment.

Henrietta's family, still pained by the absence of a mother they never knew, relate a story of deception, confusion, thievery. They find no comfort in the events that followed their mother's death. Perhaps that is one side of it.

Still, life is full of ironies.   Those scientists down the hall, without Henrietta's knowledge, or the knowledge of most of the world, had been trying for decades to grow human cells in culture in the lab. After years of no success, a doctor delivered Henrietta's tumor sample to them. And Henrietta's cells divided and thrived like no others. In fact, they never died.   NEVER.

In her cells existed a powerful will to live that outlasted her body's ability to battle cancer. In her cells existed miracles beyond imagination.  Inside her cells existed the keys to changing the world.

Yes, life has its ironies. On the same day that Henrietta died, a representative from Johns Hopkins, in front of television cameras, held up a test-tube of her cells and announced that a new era in medical research had begun. What a fitting eulogy.   Henrietta Lacks is the mother of HeLa cells, a line of immortal cells that most of us learned about in high school biology.   Almost everything we know about the processes within human cells, scientists learned from HeLa cells.  

While Henrietta led life in close radius to her birth place, her cells have traveled the continents. They have gone to outer-space and back.  Her cells have made remarkable journeys Henrietta only dreamed about. Her cells have lived wild and unconstrained, inexplicably mingling themselves with other tissue samples, breaking down barriers, as Henrietta never could.  

More amazing than that, her cells saved lives. Thanks to the tissue sample taken from Henrietta Lacks, doctors developed a vaccine for polio, plus medicines to combat cancer, AIDS, and Parkinson's.      

Yet, the twists and turns of life aren't always random.   God makes himself known to us through the most unlikely messengers. When I consider the beatitude, "The meek shall inherit the earth," I think of the pervasiveness of HeLa cells.   How fitting that Henrietta's resting place has no marker.   Her nickname, HeLa, labels petri dishes the world over, and it indicates life fully lived -- not just her own, but all the lives she has touched.

I see no irony in that.        

(Lucy Adams is a syndicated columnist, freelance writer, and author of If Mama Don't Laugh, It Ain't Funny.   She lives in Thomson.   E-mail Lucy at and visit her web site,

Web posted on Thursday, February 11, 2010

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