The Complicated Story Of The 'Immortal' Woman Henrietta Lacks

Black women have been misguided and even mistreated by their physicians since the advent of the U.S. medical system. One of the most well-publicized cases of medical mistreatment was that of Henrietta Lacks. She was a Black woman who was misused by a team of doctors, inadvertently becoming the mother of modern medicine in the process. Her unlikely story changed the world forever...but it came at the cost of her own life.

She had an unconventional childhood

Henrietta was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920, but life was hard for her from the beginning. When her mother died giving birth to her tenth child, Henrietta was sent to live with her grandfather. She grew up alongside her cousin, David "Day" Lacks, and they eventually fell in love and got married. They welcomed two children, both of whom were born when Henrietta was still a teenager.

A mother to five children

By the time World War II ended, the family had moved near Baltimore and the Bethlehem Steel plant for Day’s job. Henrietta cared for their five children, though her daughter Elsie, who had cerebral palsy and epilepsy, was eventually placed into what was then known as a "Hospital for the Negro Insane."

A larger than life presence

Henrietta only stood 5 feet tall but had a much larger presence. She was known for being personable, pretty, and a hard-working. But Henrietta couldn't have known then just how hard she'd have to work — not to mention influential — she'd be in the coming years. You see, just after the birth of her fifth child, Henrietta started to feel like something was off.

A "knot" in her womb

Henrietta noticed an unusual “knot on her womb”. The last time she felt a similar "knot," she'd ended up being pregnant. But this time, she knew there wasn't a baby growing in her womb, but something more sinister. She visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in early 1951, and like many other Black women in the '50s (and today), she was nervous about trusting the medical institution.