Henrietta Lacks (1920–1951)
Henrietta Lacks, born Loretta Pleasant, had terminal cervical cancer in 1951, and was diagnosed at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where researchers collected and stored her cancer cells. Those cells went on to become the first immortal human cell line, which the researchers named HeLa. An immortal cell line is an atypical cluster of cells that continuously multiply on their own outside of the organism from which they came, often due to a mutation. Lacks’s cancer cells enabled scientists to study human cells outside of the human body, though that was controversial since she did not voluntarily donate her cells for such research. Science writer Rebecca Skloot chronicled Lacks’s life in her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which became a movie in 2017. Lacks’s HeLa cell line has contributed to numerous biomedical research advancements and discoveries and her story has prompted legal and ethical debates over the rights that an individual has to their genetic material and tissue.