The head of the World Health Organization on Wednesday honored the late Henrietta Lacks, a black American woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in the 1950s and laid the foundation for numerous scientific achievements, including studies on the coronavirus.
The recognition by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus comes more than a decade after the publication of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot’s book on discrimination suffered by African Americans in health care, life-saving innovations thanks to Lacks cells and his family’s legal battle over their unauthorized use.
“What happened to Henrietta was wrong,” Tedros said during a special ceremony at WHO headquarters in Geneva before presenting the Director-General’s Award to his 87-year-old son Lawrence Lacks, in the presence of many other of the descendants of Henrietta.
Lacks died of cervical cancer on October 4, 1951, at age 31. The tissue that was taken from her at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore provided the first human cells to be successfully cloned. Endlessly reproduced since then, HeLa cells have become a cornerstone of modern medicine, including polio vaccine development, genetic mapping, and even COVID-19 vaccines.
Tedros noted that Lacks lived at a time when racial profiling was legal in the United States, adding that it still persists, although it is no longer legal, in most countries.
Henrietta Lacks was exploited. She is one of many women of color whose bodies were used inappropriately by science, ”he said. “She relied on the health system for treatment.