The first immortal cell line was discovered in 1951.

The source of this cell line was Henrietta Lacks - an African-American woman, being treated for cancer in the segregated, public ward at Johns Hopkins hospital. Henrietta Lacks never knew about and never consented to having her:

  • Tissue removed for research purposes
  • Cells distributed to researchers all over the world
  • Cells commercialized and sold for profit

Timeline of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, in Roanoke, Virginia to Eliza and Johnny Pleasant. 1920
Portrait of Henrietta Lacks
On April 10, 1941, Henrietta Pleasant married David “Day” Lacks
Portrait of Henrietta and her husband David
A biopsy of Henrietta Lack's tumor was taken and sent to the lab of Dr. George Gey resulting in the creation of the HeLa cell line. Sadly, Henrietta would never know the impact she would have on our world as she died shortly after, on October 4, 1951. She was 31 years old. 1951
Image of Cells
Scientists used HeLa cells to help develop the polio vaccine.
Image of nurse holding up newspaper for patient to see
Scientists used HeLa cells to study the behavior of salmonella inside human cells. 1973
Image of salmonella
HeLa cells were used by a German virologist to help prove that the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cancer.
Image of HPV
The virus infection mechanism of HIV was studied by scientists who infected HeLa cells with HIV. 1986
Image of HIV
HeLa cells were used to study tuberculosis.
Image of tuberculosis
On August 6, 2013, the family of Henrietta Lacks, in conjunction with NIH, agreed to allow biomedical researchers controlled access to the whole genome data of HeLa cells. 2013
Image of National Institute of Health building


Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman, was 30 years old when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She and her husband lived in Baltimore, MD and had five children - the fifth child born only four and a-half months before her diagnosis. Her treatment - standard at the time - consisted of implanting vials of radioactive material in the cervix. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins, tissue samples were removed and, as was routine, given to Dr. Gey for testing. Nobody asked Henrietta for permission or even told her what was happening.

Henrietta Lacks’ Legacy

Thanks to Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells, she leaves behind several legacies:

  • Scientific advances that have saved countless lives
  • A part in the realization by society that humans must be fully informed and knowledgeable not only when being treated for disease, but also when participating as a subject in research studies


This project was a partnership between the National Human Genome Research Institute and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Many thanks to Candra Flanagan and Christopher Williams from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Carla Easter, Denise Kennedy, Belen Hurle, Christina Daulton, Julia Fekecs, Kim Jacoby Morris, Rosann Wise, and Jill Thomas from the National Human Genome Research Institute. We would also like to thank Yotam Blech-Hermoni for authoring the introduction to the lesson plans.

The lesson plans were authored by the following educators:

  • Faye LavenhouseCervical Cancer and the HPV Perspective
  • Amy RosenkransRacism in Medicine or Healthcare
  • Stephen SholtasCancer Treatments from Henrietta Lacks to Today
  • Shelina WarrenSegregation and the Complicated Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Much appreciation for their time, dedication, and commitment to teaching younger generations the importance of examining the intersections of science and history.

Special thanks are offered to Jeri Lacks-Whye, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks, who shares her reflections on the legacy of her grandmother in the forward of the plans.