A Black Woman's Body has Saved Millions of Lives, But You've Probably Never Heard Her Name

Updated: Mar 29

This is an community piece written by Managing Editor, Hibagh Ahmed and Director of Stakeholder Engagement, Tana Cheema. Thanks to HeLa Carleton for sharing Henrietta Lacks' story.


While we regularly hear about remarkable achievements and discoveries in the world of science and innovation, we rarely ask about their moral and ethical costs. At what point will society emphasize ethics and morality over scientific discoveries? If this question hasn’t been asked in the past, it’s a question that’s being increasingly posed within the scientific community and academia alike and it’s being asked right now by students here at Carleton University.


"The HeLa Cells have now been used to aid a number of scientific advancements, including the treatment of blood disorders, for studying the relation between Salmonella and infections, to further the understanding of how HIV infections work, assisting in eradicating Polio and even led to the creation of the Human Genome Project."

For over seven decades, scientific advancements has happened with the use of human cells - in particular the HeLa cells. These cells belong to a 31-year old black woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks. The mother of five was admitted into John Hopkins Hospital in 1951 with a condition we now know as cervical cancer. She passed away later that year.


Under the instruction of Dr. George Gey, Lacks’ doctor, the cells were extracted without the consent of Lacks or her family and proceeded to donate them to any scientist that requested them. Lacks’ cells were not just regular cells, they are what we would consider to be magical. The HeLa Cells have now been used to aid a number of scientific advancements, including the treatment of blood disorders, for studying the relation between Salmonella and infections, to further the understanding of how HIV infections work, assisting in eradicating Polio and even led to the creation of the Human Genome Project.


"[Nadeea] Rahim, a fourth year student studying Biology and Human Rights at Carleton University, and the founder of Carleton HeLa, believes that it is time we recognize and publicly acknowledge the impact that Lacks and her cells have had on humanity."

Carleton HeLa cells is an initiative at Carleton University run entirely by Carleton students to draw awareness to the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells in a number of biology labs at Carleton. Nadeea Rahim, a fourth year student studying Biology and Human Rights at Carleton University, and the founder of Carleton HeLa, believes that it is time we recognize and publicly acknowledge the impact that Lacks and her cells have had on humanity.


“[Johns Hopkins Hospital] was one of the few hospitals at the time that treated black people,” Nadeea noted during an interview. “They thought that they had the right to take her cells because she was treated for free.”


Nadeea explained that the actions of Johns Hopkins, and the scientific community that justified its actions, have dehumanized Lacks. The conversation has shifted to the gifts that these cells have generated and people don’t realize that Lacks was a Black woman who had her cells taken without her consent.


In spite of her scientific contribution, Lacks is not well recognized. Carleton HeLa is determined to honour her.


"The issue here isn’t the value and significance of the scientific advancements the HeLa cells have generated, but the fact that this knowledge was acquired through the use of stolen cells."

One of the underlying issues when it comes to bioethics is the lack of moral consensus. This lack of moral clarity makes bioethics an incredibly challenging public policy problem. Many turn to bioethicists to help establish strategies on the issues like medical assistance in dying or the extraction of cells. Public policy makers try to strike the right balance between the morality of the policy and the societal benefits of the policy. There are no straightforward solutions and It is impossible to imagine bioethics free from any form of morality.


The issue here isn’t the value and significance of the scientific advancements the HeLa cells have generated, but the fact that this knowledge was acquired through the use of stolen cells. These cells are now being used to educate a new generation of scientists and research in our very own institutions.


Nadeea explained that the actions of Johns Hopkins, and the scientific community that justified its actions, have dehumanized Lacks. The conversation has shifted to the gifts that these cells have generated and people don’t realize that Lacks was a Black woman who had her cells taken without her consent.


"Over the last several decades, Lacks has been dehumanized, observed only as cells, a means to an end."

At the same time, people were able to figure out who Henrietta was very quickly, causing her family to receive nothing but unwanted media attention, while her cells were handed over to the multibillion dollar pharmaceutical industry for free. In another study, the family’s entire genome was written out and used for research purposes. Of course, this information could not be understood and utilized by any individual, but it was a gross invasion of the family’s privacy.


While Carleton’s actions can be seen as complacent, these students are adamant to push for change and ensure that Lacks’ contribution to the scientific world does not go unnoticed. Over the last several decades, Lacks has been dehumanized, observed only as cells, a means to an end. When her history is discussed, it tends to go over the heads of the listeners, Nadeea acknowledged.


“Henrietta Lacks was not just an advancement in science,” Nadeea pointed out. “This was a woman- a black woman.”


In today’s society, it is integral that we are able to work together to right the wrongs of the past. It’s true that Carleton University is just a single institution of the thousands that have utilized HeLa cells, but innovation and science are global and Carleton’s continued usage of HeLa cells without recognition of Lacks makes it as culpable as any other institution. Carleton HeLa recognizes how important Lacks’s cells have been to the advancement of society and they are not advocating for the end of their use. They are, however, asking that Carleton takes action in order to rectify Lacks’ lack of acknowledgement. They are asking for a biology lab to be named after her with a plaque explaining her history to be placed outside the lab as well as a yearly scholarship. The University has agreed to the scholarship, but only if students are able to collect the funds.


While this may not seem like much, it’s a way to initiate the change that the science and innovation world needs to start moving towards a better and more inclusive future . What better way to start than by recognizing the one person that made so many of their discoveries possible. Remember her name: Henrietta Lacks.



To help contribute to the Henrietta Lacks Scholarship visit: https://futurefunder.carleton.ca/campaigns/biology-bursary-for-bipoc-students/


To sign the petition to ask Carleton to recognize the contributions of Henrietta Lacks visit: https://www.change.org/p/carleton-university-demand-carleton-university-recognize-henrietta-lacks-for-bipoc-scientific-contribution?recruiter=1164489803&recruited_by_id=d3ee3f90-2777-11eb-821b-f70aaf3f80a3&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=petition_dashboard


All of the information and quotes contained in this piece were obtained via video interview with Nadeea Rahim on November 21st, 2020 and internally corroborated via external sources.