HeLa Cells Still “Doing Good for the World”

Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine. Painting by Kadir Nelson that has been on display at the National Portrait Gallery.


By James M. Stephens
Special to The Tribune

Hers is just another of those African American names many-both Black and white-are only vaguely familiar with; its full recall almost negated with the passage of time and its story largely written from the perspective of a more dominant white ideology.

Medical students, especially those specializing in cancer, immunology and infectious disease research, are very familiar with her name as her cells, known as HeLa cells, undergird much of modern medicine. The HeLa cells were integral to the research fundamental for vaccines against COVID-19.

The racial inequities and disparities inherent in the U.S. research and health-care systems are illustrated in the story of Henrietta Lacks. Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD was one of a few hospitals in the city in the mid-20th century that provided care to Black people.

Lacks was admitted there in Fall 1951 for treatment of a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. Hospital doctors had taken samples of her cancerous cells for a diagnosis and treatment of the disease. The tissue samples were given subsequently to a researcher without Lacks’ knowledge or consent. The cells displayed a remarkable capacity to not only survive but to also reproduce, making them essentially immortal.

The calendar year 2020 marked 100th anniversary of her birth. Her short life of 31 years was characterized by her love of family. Jeri Lacks-Whye, a granddaughter, said in a recent interview that Henrietta Lacks loved to cook, with spaghetti being a favorite dish.

She also loved to dance, twirling and gliding across the floor most often with one of her five children in her arms. A stylish dresser, she always had her nails impeccably manicured, most often done with red nail polish. 

She was, her granddaughter said, the center of a home where extended family gathered for emotional and psychological support and where the door was always open to anyone in need.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has now compelled scientists to right this wrong of racial injustice: taking and using the HeLa cells without her permission.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacted a disproportionate toll on communities of color. As evidenced by the COVID Racial Data Tracker, a collaboration between the COVID Tracking Project and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, The Atlantic magazine reported in December 2020 that the racial disparity in the country’s health care system was indeed “nationwide. Black people have died at 1.5 times the rate of white people.” Or, the inequity between Blacks and Whites was 144 Black deaths per 100,000 compared to 94 White deaths per 100,000.

Rather than singly focus on this particular racial injustice of the outcomes of Black deaths and White deaths racked by the COVID pandemic, Alfred Lacks Carter, a grandson, said the most important thing about the HeLa cells is how they have advanced cancer research, owning to their remarkable ability not only to survive but also reproduce in the laboratory that makes them so invaluable and, hence, immortal. 

HeLa cells were the first cells that could be easily shared and multiplied in research laboratories across the world; they have contributed to many medical innovations  _ development of the polio vaccine, to the study of the AIDS virus and leukemia, and the enhancement of invitro fertilization. “They were taken in a bad way,” the grandson said, “but they are doing good for the world.”

The Lacks family and scientists have worked together over the past 10 years to develop and implement policies and procedures to govern how these precious specimens are utilized.

NIH director Frances Collins has said he wants the research community to consider changing the Common Rule, protection policies for human participants who consent to have blood and tissue specimens taken are used in research funded by the US government. One such effort failed in 2017.

Although financial amends have not been made to the Lacks family, the #BlackLivesMatter Movement has prompted some researchers who use HeLa cells to offer financial compensation. 

For example, a laboratory at the University of California, San Diego, and a biomedical company based in the United Kingdom announced recently they will make donations to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

Rebecca Skloots, the author of the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, established the foundation in 2010. The foundation awards grants to Lacks’ descendants and to family members of others whose bodies have been used without consent for research.

Editor’s Note: Renee’ Elise Goldsberry stars as Henrietta Lacks in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, now showing on HBO and streaming on HBO Max. Oprah Winfrey, executive producer, leads a stellar cast featuring Courtney B. Vance, Re E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, and Rose Bryne.


Pioneering Black Physicians Changed Lives in Middle TN

Editor’s Note: Around the same time cancerous cells were harvested from Henrietta Lacks for research in the mid-20th century, three Black physicians in Middle Tennessee were making a difference in the health field in Middle Tennessee. 

By Mike Patton
Special to The Tribune

Dr. D.B. Todd Jr.

People ride along Dr. D.B. Todd Jr. Blvd everyday in Nashville. Most could not tell you anything about him. They just can tell you that Dr. D.B. Todd Jr. Blvd is a street in North Nashville. If they knew about him, they would have great respect for his accomplishments during an era when

Dr. D.B. Todd Jr.

the medical field was still segregated.

  David B. Todd Jr. was born in 1931 in Jefferson County, Alabama and attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he earned his undergraduate degree. From there he moved to Nashville and attended Meharry Medical College, where he met his mentor, Dr. Matthew Walker Sr. and earned his medical degree. 

 After leaving Meharry as a student, Todd headed to the University of Minnesota, where one of the first open-heart surgeries in the world was performed.

  Todd came back to Nashville as an assistant professor of surgery at Meharry Medical College in 1966, but he was also the director of thoracic and cardiovascular divisions at the same time. His legend would only grow from there. He became associate professor of surgery in 1969.

He was the first Black cardiovascular surgeon in Nashville. Todd and his team performed the first open-heart surgery in the city of Nashville in 1972.

  Unfortunately his life was cut short in 1980, when he had a heart attack while driving. His memory lives on though on that stretch of 18th Avenue North named after him. Dr. D.B. Todd was the first in Nashville when the medical field was starting to desegregate and his contributions to medicine will never be forgotten. An historical marker commemorating his contributions stands on 14th Street next to the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center.

Dr. Dorothy Brown

When you hear of Black Girl Magic, you hear of women doing great things and having great achievements. No one woman in the state of Tennessee embodied that more than Dr. Dorothy Brown. 

She was born in Philadelphia, PA and orphaned at 5 months old.  After her experience of having a tonsillectomy as a child, she knew that she

Dr. Dorothy Brown

wanted to be when she grew up and make other Black people proud of her.She became the first Black woman surgeon in the state at what was then Riverside Hospital for over 26 years (from 1957 to 1983). But that was not her only first. She also became the first single female in 1956 in Tennessee to adopt a child. And she was also the first Black woman to be elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 1966 in addition to being the chief surgeon at Riverside Hospital.

In her role as a politician, she was able to play an integral part in getting the Negro History Act passed in the state. that meant public schools were required to conduct special programs during Negro History Week, which was the second week of February, to recognize accomplishments made by African-Americans (Negro History week would grow into Black History Month in the 1970s).

Brown broke barriers for many that came after her and opened doors for more Black people and specifically, more Black women.  When Black Girl Magic is mentioned, Dr. Dorothy Brown is one of the first to come to mind for all that she accomplished. She s honored every year at a breakfast held in her name by the Nashville Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Dr. Matthew Walker Sr.

There are doctors and then there are just outstanding human-beings. Dr. Matthew Walker Sr. was that outstanding human being that happened to also be a legendary doctor. 

Matthew Walker Sr. was born in Waterproof, LA and then moved as a child to New Orleans for a better education. And after attending New Orleans University (which was later renamed Dillard University) and graduating in 1929, he decided that he wanted to be a doctor. He applied

Dr. Matthew Walker, Sr.

for and was accepted at Meharry Medical College and that is when the legend of Dr. Matthew Walker Sr. began to build.

He was graduated from Meharry Medical College with honors in 1934 and after an internship at Nashville’s Hubbard Hospital, he completed an internship and then become an instructor in gynecology, surgery, orthopedics, anesthesia, and areas of the eyes, ears, nose and throat. 

Walker had a vast array of knowledge that allowed him to hold various positions around the country and world, but at his alma mater, he was directly responsible for revitalizing the entire medical curriculum. He changed the program to a five to seven-year residential stint that was tough but produced many great surgeons, including Dr. Dorothy Brown and Dr. D.B.Todd.   

Walker was at Meharry for over 30 years (1943-1973). In addition to training many of the country’s Black surgeons, he produced publications on wound healing as well as peritonitis.

He received a $1.5 million grant to start a community-based clinic in Nashville which opened in 1968 as the Meharry Medical Health Center. It was the first Federally-qualified state Comprehensive Health center in the state of Tennessee. It was renamed in 1970 after Dr. Walker Sr., the first federally funded clinic in the country named after a Black man. The center continues to serve both the underinsured and the uninsured in Middle Tennessee.