A 31-year-old woman lay near death from cervical cancer when a Johns Hopkins research doctor made a stunning observation about a pea-sized tumor biopsy section surgically removed from her body. It was a discovery that would make her immortal.
It was the early fall of 1951, and for the first time in scientific practice, human cells were living outside the body in a glass tube. The cells of this Turners Station mother of five could be tested, treated and studied, opening up whole avenues of biological research.
Stored under the right conditions, they would never die. To this day, though the story is little known in Baltimore, the cells remain vigorous in labs all over the world. Back in the 1950s, they were used to test polio vaccines. Other uses helped create the fields of molecular biology and virology.
In 1951, because of the prevailing customs regarding patient confidentiality, the name of the woman was not released; only the acronym HeLa (Henrietta Lacks) was used. Indeed, the donor of the cell line was not named in public for another 20-odd years.
Today, nearly 46 years after the death of Henrietta Lacks, her husband and four children are seeking answers and some recognition for the woman who did so much for medical science.
"We were told nothing, kept in the dark," said Deborah Lacks-Pullum, a cosmetologist who was a small child when her mother died.
The era was at least partly to blame.
"Conventional medical practice held that when you worked with discarded materials, you stripped it of all identifiers.
She made an extraordinary contribution. More than most of us, she left something behind, a remarkable legacy," said Ruth R. Faden, a Johns Hopkins health policy professor.
While a brief account of Henrietta Lacks is included in a centennial history of biomedicine at Hopkins, the story of her life has escaped widespread local notice.
Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Clover, Va., 30 miles from the North Carolina border. Her ancestors had been slaves who worked in the tobacco fields. Her father was a railroad brakeman.
In 1943 she moved near Baltimore to the segregated community of Turners Station, where she joined her husband, David, who had come to work a few months before at the Sparrows Point shipyard. He was paid 80 1/2 cents an hour at first; he continued to work for Bethlehem Steel until his retirement about 20 years ago.
"It was a new house, with a nice new gas stove. Henrietta had never cooked before on anything but a wood stove," her husband recalled. She never gave up her ties to Clover and often visited her old home every summer, he said.
Their Turners Station home was at 713 New Pittsburg Ave. She reared her five children there until the disease that eventually claimed her life made her seek medical treatment at Hopkins. What became a major medical discovery had its origins in a routine biopsy taken sometime after her initial trip from Turners Station to Hopkins, Feb. 1, 1951.
'More amazing stories'
"We consider hers to be one of the more amazing stories of science and everyday life too," said Dr. Victor A. McKusick, a leading Hopkins geneticist.
Tomorrow, the British Broadcasting Corp. will air a one-hour documentary, "The Way of All Flesh," about Henrietta Lacks, her cells and their role in cancer research.
"Henrietta Lacks opened up a whole new branch of science," said Adam Curtis, the documentary's producer. "The problem has been, there has never been a HeLa Line historian, someone to assemble and put all the pieces together."
"Hers was a monumental contribution," said Dr. Laure Aurelian, the University of Maryland's chief of pharmacology, experimental biology and microbiology, who studied with the physician who ++ made the startling discovery, Dr. George O. Gey.
"I can well remember what Dr. Gey told me he had told Henrietta Lacks. He said, 'Your cells will make you immortal.' "
Last fall, Dr. Roland A. Pattillo, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Morehouse Medical School in Atlanta, honored the Lacks family at a public ceremony. Pattillo, who was Gey's student in the 1960s, paid for the family to travel to Atlanta, where they were the guest stars at a medical conference.
Efforts are under way to honor her name in Turners Station too, where she has been enshrined in a neighborhood hall of fame at Speed's Grocery Center on William Wade Ave.
While the cells have aided the cause of science, her family is still seeking answers about a woman who made a history that has never been fully described to them.
"It seems like we don't even exist. No one has ever really informed us what happened. Her contribution has not been acknowledged," said Lacks-Pullum, who lives on Frankford Avenue in Northeast Baltimore.
Since Lacks' death her family has remained largely intact. Her 81-year-old husband, David Lacks Sr., has left Turners Station and resides on Linwood Avenue. The four surviving children (Deborah, David Jr., Lawrence and Zakariyya) all live in Baltimore and remain close to their father, who never remarried. After his wife's death, he did not talk about her very much.
"She was a pretty girl. She had a face that reminded people of Dorothy Lamour. She was always smiling. I never saw her mad. She was always willing to give everyone a helping hand," said Sadie Sturdivant, a longtime friend who lives in Northeast Baltimore.
"She could tell if I slipped away and went swimming off Turners Station. She could see if my eyes were red," said her oldest son, Lawrence, a retired MARC commuter train engineer.
Kept troubles to herself
About the time her fifth child was born, Henrietta Lacks began experiencing sharp pains and excessive vaginal bleeding. Always stoical, she kept her medical troubles from her children and even close friends.
"I used to drive her to the emergency room on Monument Street. There was a little tree where I would park the car and wait for her. She was in terrible pain that would wake her up in the middle of the night," said her husband.
She was seen by leading Johns Hopkins gynecologists, who discovered a tumor that was found to be malignant. A piece of the tumor -- the size of a small sugar cube -- was also sent to Gey, whose Monument Street laboratory was near the surgery unit.
The doctor, who died in 1970, had been experimenting for years to get human cells to grow outside the body, where they could be tested and studied safely.
"We had tried to get maybe 25 cell lines to grow, but they all failed. When they brought this one in, I thought to myself, 'Oh, here's another.' I stopped long enough to finish my sandwich," said Mary Toye Kubicek, who was a lab worker in the Gey unit.
Not much was known about cell growth at the time. Lab materials and supplies had to be secured as best they could. Dr. Gey had Corning Glass make cell-growing tubes to his specifications.
Chicken blood, embryos
He also needed a substance to encourage the human cells to grow. For this medium, he and his wife made trips to Dietz Brothers poultry stall in the Northeast Market, where they drew blood from live chickens' hearts. They also secured bovine embryos, which they ran through a Waring blender. The Geys also used the collagen found in rat tails.
"He was brilliant in that he could make things work," said his son, Dr. George Gey Jr., a cardiologist who lives near Seattle. He recalls his father visiting local scrap yards for spare parts.
"This was before the days when you ordered something from a catalog," Gey said.
"Tissue culture was then in its infancy," Kubicek said. "It was not much recognized at first. And Dr. Gey was very generous. He just gave samples of the cells away so other people could do their own research."
Not long after Dr. Gey's successful cultivation of the HeLa cells, other researchers began using them in their own work.
"My father liked to share his research," said Gey. "He would put his glass tubes containing the cells in his shirt pocket, use his own body heat to keep them warm, and then fly to another city and hand them to a fellow scientist."
Eventually, the elder Dr. Gey deposited the HeLa Line with a nonprofit group, the American Type Culture Collection in Rockville. The group makes the line available to accredited medical researchers for $85.
Dr. Gey's role in biological science brought him to the attention of the Nobel Prize committee. Although his work was held in high regard, he did not win the award, Pattillo said.
"Hopefully, history will be kind and the milestone of Henrietta Lacks will be made known. Let us hope that she will be the only instance of an oversight of this magnitude," Pattillo said.
Pub Date: 3/18/97