Black History: Medical Contributions

For Black History Month, we at thought it would be interesting to share tidbits from A Black History Reader: 101 Questions You Never Thought to Ask by Dr. Claud Anderson. In this book, Dr. Anderson highlights and examines the ignored social construct on race, its effects on Black Americans and strategies they can use to take advantage of its weaknesses. This book is an excellent educational tool for students and adults. It is packed with answers that, quite frankly, many have never thought to ask. (Recognize the pun? *smile*) Question 91 below is an excerpt about Henrietta Lacks.

Question 91. What is the single most impactful and enduring medical contribution unknowingly made by a Black person to modern science?

Without a doubt, one of the greatest medical contributions made unknowingly was that of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Black tobacco farmer born in Southern Virginia and treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951. The doctors and scientists who treated her found that her cells had unique characteristics, ones that they had been trying unsuccessfully to formulate in the laboratory for many years. The cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks seemed to be immortal; they never died. Unlike other human cells, Lacks’ cells regenerated continuously and at an extraordinary rate. To this day, scientists do not know why her cells are immortal, but they transformed medical science and created an entire advanced medical industry that made some researchers and others who had a part in monetizing her cells, enormously wealthy.

Henrietta Lacks died a few months after her cancer diagnosis, but her cells, designated as HeLa by researchers, lived on. She never knew the major impact the cells taken from her cervix, used without her permission or knowledge, would have on medicine or the wealth her cells would create for scientific researchers and their friends, while her family remained in poverty. Her cells were grown and sold to researchers around the world. New businesses were created to produce the HeLa cells and the culture medium in which to grow them. Specialty businesses were also developed to package the cells and to ship them to laboratories across the world. HeLa cells enabled Jonas Salk to create the Salk vaccine and to respond quickly to the polio epidemic that was exploding in the 1950s. HeLa cells were used to grow viruses, conduct experiments, to test medicines, map DNA, and other scientific research. They were in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Gene mapping, cloning and invitro fertilization are scientific landmarks that were achieved because of the cells from the cervix of a poor Black woman with cancer.

Read more about Henrietta Lacks and other Black History facts in A Black History Reader: 101 Questions You Never Thought to Ask by Dr. Claud Anderson.

We will post an excerpt every day in honor of Black History Month!

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