Henrietta Lacks is like all of us to the scientific landscape. Nameless, faceless, voiceless, with no power to make decisions with how we are viewed to the field. She didn’t have a say with her own unique cells. No wonder people distrust a paradigm that continues to treat people as if they have no name, no face, no voice, not even power. Until now. The past week has been surreal.
To give a quick background and this is from Yasmin Amer for NPR news: ‘In 1951, a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital in agonizing pain. Doctors diagnosed her with cervical cancer. She died just months later. But what this mother of five never knew was that her cells would outlive her and be used to develop new drugs and vaccines…Her cells were the first known immortal cells. Whereas other cells died in the lab, hers thrived. They multiplied. They gave doctors the ability to do new, innovative research. Names and fortunes were built on them, nicknamed HeLa cells for Henrietta Lacks.’
Watching the Lacks family do their part to put a name, a face, a voice to cells used without permission is soul gratifying. To see the highest health organization in the world, the World Health Organization acknowledge that some injustice occurred in a field that preys on people for what what just is and not for their overall being, is also soul gratifying. Henrietta Lacks is no longer nameless, or faceless or even without voice because some voices, came together to say in harmony together, enough is enough. Enough is enough with treating people as if they were commodities in science. Treating them as if they were indispensable. Enough is enough with being faceless in science too. Enough is also enough with being voices with science. She matters just as everyone else matters as well. Science can no longer pretend as if it’s not in the business of people who have names or faces or voice. They do.
Every single person that interacts with the field has power even beyond science. We in the field are not the only ones that get to decide what has impact or who counts. They public had a critical say to advancing the field. They have a critical say with dictating how we best use our tools to serve them. And if and when we deviate from what is permissible, the public has a say with putting us right back in order. That is what Henrietta Lacks Family did for her this past couple of days. She may be long gone, but forever and ever we will say her name, see her face and know her voice. She was powerful beyond her wildest dreams and will remain so for as long as time permits.