There are over seven billion individuals worldwide, all coming from different ethnic backgrounds, genetic makeups, and life experiences. However, if one individual were to serve as a common ground among all these individuals, it would likely be Henrietta Lacks.
The mother of Modern Medicine, Henrietta Lacks, is widely known for her unknowing contribution to science through the cell line HeLa cells. Cell lines are cells that display continuous growth and come from living organisms. HeLa cells have played a massive role in developing research and cures for diseases like COVID-19, Human Papillary Virus (HPV), and cervical cancer.
However, for many women who racially identify with Lacks, they are still more likely to die of cervical cancer compared to other races.
For descendants of Henrietta Lacks, the mother of Modern Medicine is more than just a cell. Sharing a resemblance to her great-grandmother, Veronica Robinson thinks of the words “resilience,” “family,” and “legacy” when she hears the name Henrietta Lacks. Veronica Robinson’s grandfather, Lawrence (Lance) Lacks, is the eldest son of Henrietta. Robinson shares that before she was born, her great-grandmother had already passed. However, “growing up, I had the pleasure of being raised with all my aunts and uncles, but mostly my great-grandfather [Henrietta Lacks’ husband], David Lacks Senior. I feel her presence through all the stories and all the ways each Lacks carried themselves. And the way they pride themselves on keeping the family together.”
Robinson doesn’t recall a specific age when she first learned about the history of her great-grandmother. She says, “she wasn’t talked a lot about in the family because it was believed we didn’t tell stories about people who are deceased.” Robinson also mentions that the tragic departure of Henrietta more than likely influenced the timing of when she learned about the history of her great-grandmother. In October 1951, Henrietta Lacks passed from cervical cancer. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. During her treatment at the hospital, Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells were collected (stolen) and used to create the HeLa cell line without her consent. For science and millions of individuals worldwide, HeLa cells were the next steps toward generational healing. However, for Veronica Robinson and other descendants of the Lacks family, it was the beginning of a new generational trauma.
While businesses like Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in Massachusetts, today develop and market goods generated from HeLa cells, charging upwards of two thousand dollars per unit, Henrietta Lacks’ family has struggled for decades since her death Robinson wrote in a now-published book “Henrietta Lacks: The Untold Story.” which caught the attention of popular civil rights attorneys Crump and Chris Seeger. In 2022, The family announced a civil lawsuit arguing that the biotechnology company had made millions in “unjust enrichment,”.
Robinson states, “after [Henrietta Lacks’] death, my aunts, uncles, and my grandfather all went through different tragedies that they all feel strongly… if their mother was alive, a lot of things wouldn’t have happened.” Robinson further explains that these personal tragedies her family faced have allowed them to build resilience and strengthen her definition of solidarity, family, and legacy. Robinson also shares that healing looks different for everyone in her family. For her, healing comes from service. According to Word in Black, the Lacks family are close to getting their day in court.
As an ambassador for former President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative and the World Health Organization (WHO), Robinson works locally and globally to continue her great-grandmother’s legacy. She serves as an advocate and community activist to educate the public about Henrietta Lacks’ story. Her partnership with WHO entails assisting with eliminating cervical cancer by 2030. At The HELA100: The Henrietta Lacks Initiative, Robinson works to combat vaccine hesitancy and explain where these hesitancies in marginalized communities come from. In addition, Robinson is also a certified nursing and geriatric assistant and a caregiver to her grandfather, David Lacks.
Robinson shares that in the “Lacks family, we turn where people [saw] us as victims; we no longer wanted to be viewed as victims, but victors. We’re victors because we no longer let people tell our stories. We are telling our stories for ourselves, and not only are we telling our stories for ourselves, but we are also making sure that we are keeping the community engaged and educated so that they can make informed decisions and great decisions for their families.”
For someone unfamiliar with Henrietta Lacks’ story, Robinson states that one of the biggest takeaways would be that “sometimes bad things happen to good people so that great things can happen for the rest of the world. Just because God used [Henrietta] as a vessel does not mean we don’t need to still seek change, and we can’t do better as people.”
The other takeaway Robinson shares is that Henrietta “was more than just a cell. She was a wife. She was a mother. She was a friend. She was a matriarch. She was the staple in her family. So when you think about her and you say her name, understand that each one of your families has someone who they love like we loved her. They have a Henrietta that even when they pass away, we still seek their presence because of how powerful they were in our lives.”
Henrietta Lacks’ impact on science and medicine is undeniable, but her legacy reaches far beyond the laboratory. She symbolizes resilience, strength, and the importance of telling our own stories. Through the efforts of descendants like Veronica Robinson, her memory lives on, inspiring others to seek change, fight for justice, and make a difference in their communities.
As we continue to navigate the complex intersection of science, ethics, and personal narratives, Henrietta Lacks’ story serves as a reminder that behind every scientific breakthrough, there are people with hopes, dreams, and families whose lives are forever intertwined with the progress we make.
Written by: Ngozi V. Alia