Cancer victim's contribution 'immortal' Family receives plaque honoring her for cells that aided research

September 14, 1997|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

The family of Henrietta Lacks, a Baltimore County cancer victim whose cells have survived and aided medical research since her death in 1951, received a plaque yesterday honoring her "selfless contribution" to science.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. presented the plaque -- with wording from a tribute he paid to Lacks in the House of Representatives in June -- at New Shiloh Baptist Church in Turners Station at a meeting of a museum foundation established in her name.

Lacks was dying of cervical cancer when a Johns Hopkins research doctor observed that cells in a small tumor biopsy section were still living outside her body in a glass tube -- and would remain alive indefinitely under the right conditions.

They became known as HeLa cells and, long after Lacks' death, played a vital role in research on polio and other diseases. But Lacks' name was not made known for nearly two decades, said Mary T. Kubicek, who worked with the HeLa cells as a lab technician at Hopkins in the early 1950s and attended yesterday's presentation ceremony.

Though Lacks' name has been used in connection with the HeLa cells in several scientific books, a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary earlier this year helped bring her to the attention of Ehrlich, a Republican whose 2nd District includes the Turners Station area, where the family formerly lived.

"Henrietta Lacks' selfless contribution to the field of medicine has gone without acknowledgment for too long," the plaque reads in part. "Her cells made her immortal: through her death, countless others have been saved by the research that was made possible through her cell line."

"It's great just to get it widely known who Henrietta Lacks was," said her son, David Lacks Jr., 50, who attended the ceremony with his father, David Sr., 81, a retired Bethlehem Steel Corp. employee, and a sister, Deborah Lacks Pullum, 47. Two other Lacks children survive.

The foundation wants to build a $7 million museum in honor of Lacks. Until then, the plaque will hang in a grocery store run by the project's president, Courtney L. Speed. .

Speed said she hopes the museum project will spark an interest in science among young people in the historically black neighborhood.

"I'm not against rap music or sports," Speed said, "But we have to teach our children that they can be stars in medical or scientific fields."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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