Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, center, and others gather Saturday iin Turner Station to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, center, and others gather Saturday iin Turner Station to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks. (Michael Brice-Saddler, Baltimore Sun)

Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cancer cells became some of the most important in the history of medical research, now will have a day dedicated to her each year in Baltimore County.

Lacks was honored by Baltimore County government Saturday morning at the Fleming Community Center in Turner Station, the neighborhood where she lived.

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About 150 people attended the ceremony, including Lacks' family, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, representatives from the Henrietta Lacks Legacy Group and the Henrietta Lacks House of Healing, among others.

Kamenetz announced that every first Saturday in August will be known as "Henrietta Lacks Day." Moreover, New Pittsburg Avenue, which turns into Main Street in Turner Station — the street where Lacks lived — has been ceremonially renamed "Henrietta Lacks Place."

Thirteen decorative street signs will be placed in the Turner Station community in Lacks' honor, he said.

"Every Baltimore County resident is proud of Henrietta Lacks for her contribution to medical science," Kamenetz said. He described Lacks' story as one of family, deception and significant scientific achievement.

"This is something that was long deserved and important to all of us," he added.

Lacks' family to have say in use of her genetic material

Henrietta Lacks had no say when Johns Hopkins doctors used her cells 60 years ago in research that led to groundbreaking medical advances, but now her descendants will.

Before Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells were taken without her consent during a diagnostic procedure by Johns Hopkins researchers. These cells — known as the HeLa immortal cell line — became instrumental to several scientific breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine and cancer therapies. The cells reproduce indefinitely and continue to be a significant source of medical data and research.

Family members have said they want Hopkins to compensate the family for the unauthorized use of his mother's cells. Hopkins officials said that when the cells were taken, there was no established practice for informing or obtaining consent from cell or tissue donors, nor were there any regulations on the use of cells in research.

While her cells were famous, Lacks' story and contributions to the medical field were not made widely known until recently. An HBO movie about her life starring Oprah Winfrey was released in April, titled "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," and a book of the same title was published in 2010.

"When you have an enduring legacy like Henrietta Lacks, who can be remembered by not only the Turner Station community, but by the entire county and really the world, it's a remarkable achievement," Kamenetz said.

Alfred Lacks Carter, grandson of Henrietta and president of the Henrietta Lacks House of Healing, a Baltimore foundation that provides help for those returning from prison, said this honor means "a great deal" to the Lacks family.

"Henrietta Lacks touched everyone," Carter said. "If you took medicine, then she's affected your life."

Henrietta Lacks further immortalized with portrait at Baltimore City Hall

On the wall in City Hall next to the Board of Estimates room are tributes to great men in Baltimore's history: Portraits of Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Kweisi Mfume and Dr. Ben Carson, among others.

Kamenetz said honoring Lacks' legacy in Turner Station is especially important because it is one of the oldest and largest African-American communities in the county. Dr. Eva McGhee, with the Henrietta Lacks House of Healing, said African-American women "are often overlooked for the many contributions they make to society."

"Them putting this street sign up in Turner Station is a monument, and something that's always going to be here," Carter said.

Following the ceremony, attendees were invited to walk along the newly named Henrietta Lacks Place and view her former home. People later went inside the Fleming Community Center for a screening of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

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"For the next generations to come, they'll know who Henrietta Lacks is," Carter said. "That's a legacy that will never die, and I'm proud of that."

The 20th annual Turner Station Heritage Praise Day Celebration, further honoring Henrietta Lacks, will take place on the first "Henrietta Lacks Day" Aug. 5 at Union Baptist Church in Dundalk.

HBO movie on Henrietta Lacks puts spotlight on Johns Hopkins

An HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey about Henrietta Lacks has thrust Johns Hopkins into an uncomfortable spotlight and prompted some Lacks family members and others to call for financial compensation for her descendants as a form of atonement. By dredging up past wrongs, it creates at least a temporary public relations issue for the esteemed institution, crisis management experts said.

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