Her cells made her immortal Research: A Turners Station woman donated cells that revolutionized medical science

nearly 46 years later, her family is seeking recognition.

March 18, 1997|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

A 31-year-old woman lay near death from cervical cancer when a Johns Hopkins research doctor made a stunning observation about a pea-sized tumor biopsy section surgically removed from her body. It was a discovery that would make her immortal.

It was the early fall of 1951, and for the first time in scientific practice, human cells were living outside the body in a glass tube. The cells of this Turners Station mother of five could be tested, treated and studied, opening up whole avenues of biological research.

Stored under the right conditions, they would never die. To this day, though the story is little known in Baltimore, the cells remain vigorous in labs all over the world. Back in the 1950s, they were used to test polio vaccines. Other uses helped create the fields of molecular biology and virology.

In 1951, because of the prevailing customs regarding patient confidentiality, the name of the woman was not released; only the acronym HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) was used. Indeed, the donor of the cell line was not named in public for another 20-odd years.

Today, nearly 46 years after the death of Henrietta Lacks, her husband and four children are seeking answers and some recognition for the woman who did so much for medical science.

"We were told nothing, kept in the dark," said Deborah Lacks-Pullum, a cosmetologist who was a small child when her mother died.

The era was at least partly to blame.

"Conventional medical practice held that when you worked with discarded materials, you stripped it of all identifiers.

She made an extraordinary contribution. More than most of us, she left something behind, a remarkable legacy," said Ruth R. Faden, a Johns Hopkins health policy professor.

While a brief account of Henrietta Lacks is included in a centennial history of biomedicine at Hopkins, the story of her life has escaped widespread local notice.

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Clover, Va., 30 miles from the North Carolina border. Her ancestors had been slaves who worked in the tobacco fields. Her father was a railroad brakeman.

In 1943 she moved near Baltimore to the segregated community of Turners Station, where she joined her husband, David, who had come to work a few months before at the Sparrows Point shipyard. He was paid 80 1/2 cents an hour at first; he continued to work for Bethlehem Steel until his retirement about 20 years ago.

"It was a new house, with a nice new gas stove. Henrietta had never cooked before on anything but a wood stove," her husband recalled. She never gave up her ties to Clover and often visited her old home every summer, he said.

Their Turners Station home was at 713 New Pittsburg Ave. She reared her five children there until the disease that eventually claimed her life made her seek medical treatment at Hopkins. What became a major medical discovery had its origins in a routine biopsy taken sometime after her initial trip from Turners Station to Hopkins, Feb. 1, 1951.

'More amazing stories'

"We consider hers to be one of the more amazing stories of science and everyday life too," said Dr. Victor A. McKusick, a leading Hopkins geneticist.

Tomorrow, the British Broadcasting Corp. will air a one-hour documentary, "The Way of All Flesh," about Henrietta Lacks, her cells and their role in cancer research.

"Henrietta Lacks opened up a whole new branch of science," said Adam Curtis, the documentary's producer. "The problem has been, there has never been a HeLa Line historian, someone to assemble and put all the pieces together."

"Hers was a monumental contribution," said Dr. Laure Aurelian, the University of Maryland's chief of pharmacology, experimental biology and microbiology, who studied with the physician who ++ made the startling discovery, Dr. George O. Gey.

"I can well remember what Dr. Gey told me he had told Henrietta Lacks. He said, 'Your cells will make you immortal.' "

Last fall, Dr. Roland A. Pattillo, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Morehouse Medical School in Atlanta, honored the Lacks family at a public ceremony. Pattillo, who was Gey's student in the 1960s, paid for the family to travel to Atlanta, where they were the guest stars at a medical conference.

Efforts are under way to honor her name in Turners Station too, where she has been enshrined in a neighborhood hall of fame at Speed's Grocery Center on William Wade Ave.

While the cells have aided the cause of science, her family is still seeking answers about a woman who made a history that has never been fully described to them.

"It seems like we don't even exist. No one has ever really informed us what happened. Her contribution has not been acknowledged," said Lacks-Pullum, who lives on Frankford Avenue in Northeast Baltimore.

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