Black History Fun Fact Friday – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Originally Published February 27, 2015


Today is a special Friday because we’re going to be talking about a special woman in history. She’s a unique study because there is not a lot of information on her. While technology has blessed us with the internet so that we no longer have to sit through 500-page books and encyclopedias, the best way to research her life is actually through books, and I have a perfect one for you to check out. It is because of this book that search engines are just now coughing up information about it. I didn’t intend to make another book recommendation, but this one goes hand in hand with last week’s post so much, so I could not help it. It is almost a single example that alone validates Harriet’s study. For last week’s post, Medical Apartheid, Click Here.

marcusMany of you have heard of her in biology class, but you probably didn’t know you were studying her cells. If you have ever sat through a class on cells and heard the term HeLa, you’ve heard of her. Your science professor more than likely described it like this:

“A HeLa cell, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. “

That was probably the extent of the explanation. There is even a scientific name for HeLa, and it’s called Helacyton Gartleri.

HeLa cells were the first line of human cells to survive in vitro (in a test tube). The cells were taken from tissue samples and grown by a researcher named Dr. George Gey in 1951. Dr. Gey quickly realized that some of the cells were different from ordinary cells. While those died, they just kept on growing. After more than 50 years, there are billions of HeLa cells in laboratories all over the world. It’s the most commonly used cell line, and it’s known to be extremely resilient.


In 1951, a black woman was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer, and when she died, doctors took her cells without permission, and these cells never died. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells became the foundation for groundbreaking research. From developing the polio vaccine to cloning to gene mapping, her cells helped to make blood pressure medicines and antidepressant pills; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease, and more.

The fact that HeLa cells have been used in some fundamental medical research is impressive enough, but there’s another part of the story — and that part is why Oprah might be making a movie about HeLa. Henrietta Lacks had no idea that her cells were taken and used in this way, and neither did her family. And while the cells became commercialized (researchers can buy a vial of them for $250), Lacks’ family has lived without healthcare and in poverty. Since Henrietta and her family never knew about her cell usage, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a story about her contribution to medical research, so much as the ethics of biomedical research and the practice of informed consent.

Rebecca Skloot documents how one woman’s cells continue to live outside of her body. She achieves this using thousands of hours of interviews, lawyers, ethicists, scientists, Journalists who wrote about the Lack’s family, great archival photos, scientific and historical research, and the personal journal of Deborah Lacks.

Movie Night Friday


When I think of Friday nights, I think of rest; of sabbaths, relaxation, peacefulness, calm, repose; time-out. I also think of a good movie to watch. If possible, I would like to fill up my Friday posts (every now and again) with my favorite movies and why I love them. We’ll call this:

MNFAt the top of my list is one of my favorite movies called “Something The Lord Made”, starring Mos Def, Alan Rickman, and Gabrielle Union. A made for TV movie back in 2004 and based on a true story, Something The Lord Made is the story of Vivien Thomas, a black man who was not a doctor, not a college graduate, and paid a janitor’s wage and yet, became one of the most skilled surgeons of his time.

thomas_vivienIn 1930, Vivien Thomas (19) played by Mos Def, was a carpenter from Nashville with ambitions to attend Tennessee State College and then medical school. However, he was fired from his job and took a position as janitor at Vanderbilt University, as learned through a friend, working under Dr. Alfred Blalock, the world famous “Blue Baby” doctor who pioneered modern heart surgery, played by Alan Rickman. Vivien’s plans were to work temporarily as to save for college, but the depression wiped out his savings as well as his hope of going to school.

something-the-lord-made_lHowever, while hired as a janitor, Thomas quickly becomes a key component in Blalock’s medical research and becomes Blalock’s medical research partner. Vivien is not just any partner; Vivien is brilliant, using his carpentry skills, profound intellect, simplicity, and teachings from his father to learn in three weeks what most lab assistants learned in months. Blalock sees potential in Vivien and lets him in on his groundbreaking work on shock, the first phase of the body’s reaction to trauma. In short, Vivien became a cardiac pioneer 30 years before the first black surgical resident. And he was just a High School graduate.

slideshow_18 something_the_lord_made_3

The movie picks up when the men move their work to John Hopkins Hospital in 1941. Mary Masterson plays Helen Taussig, the pediatrician / cardiologist. At a social gathering among the doctors, at which Thomas is the waiter, Taussig challenges Blalock to come up with a surgical solution for her blue babies, babies who practically suffocate due to a blockage in the main artery in the lung, medically termed, Cyanosis ( the appearance of a blue or purple coloration of the skin or mucous membranes due to the tissues near the skin surface having low oxygen). She needs a new way for them to oxygenate the blood. The movie shows the two, Blalock and Thomas, in the lab conducting experiments and experimenting on dogs. Their plan is to figure out how to turn the dogs “blue” by giving them the blue baby condition and then figuring out a way to solve it.

vivian thomas

The film dramatizes Blalock and Thomas fight to save the babies and Blalock praises Thomas surgical skill as being “like something the lord made”. But outside the lab, they are separated by the racism of the time. Thomas is a bartender, a waiter, and despite his genius in the lab—conducting most of the experiments, doing the research, and standing over Blalock’s shoulders to ensure the surgical procedures are done correctly—he is paid a janitor’s wage. He is not an invitee to the Belvedere Hotel where they honor those of the Blue Baby surgery, not featured in the magazines, and not given credit at all for his remarkable contribution to the medical field. In what way does Vivien become one of the most talented surgeons of time, training white surgeons with doctorate degrees, at an institution where he has to enter through the back door? How does the story unfold? Who was Vivien Thomas? This movie is a must see.


Spot the knot! (Funny Movie Mistakes)

When you watch this movie (Check Netflix ), when Clara (Thomas wife, played by Gabrielle Union), takes her seat next to Thomas on the bus and begins talking to Vivien, a modern SUV, sedan, and pickup truck are briefly visible in a parking lot behind them. Try to see if you can catch it!

“What’s your favorite movie? Why do you love it?”