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Black History Month: The Mother of Modern Medicine

Forever changing the medical industry — a black woman from Roanoke known as “the Mother of Modern Medicine” played a pivotal role in American history.

But it’s a name many don’t recognize, despite her significant contributions.

Explaining how her legacy is one of saving lives across the globe.

Henrietta Lacks is inside all of us. In treatment and vaccines, her cells made possible.

“She is a miracle,” said Rep. Kwesi Mfume, (D) Md. “And her cells continue to live long after she left us in October of 1951.”

A little more than a year after giving birth to her last child at Johns Hopkins Hospital…the Roanoke native died of cervical cancer at the age of 31.

It was the 1950′s and polio disabled tens of thousands of people every year in the United States. Though Lacks had no known history with polio, her cells were remarkable…and would lead to a polio vaccine.

“They also discovered that her cells are immortal they did not die,” said Dr. Eva Quiroz, an infectious disease specialist at LewisGale.

With Lacks’ unique cells, researchers could study how the virus infected humans.

“So I worked in polio eradication, and I have seen firsthand how her cells have helped eradicate a disease that was so horrible it started a whole new phase in medicine which was investigated, able to create vaccines, able to address cancer,” Dr. Quiroz said.

Medical researchers — seeing the value — kept her cells reproducing. Today they are called “HeLa cells,” and serve to help find cures and vaccines to many, many diseases including COVID-19 vaccines and cancer treatments.

But there’s a problem.

“Today those cells support a multi-billion-dollar biotechnology industry,” said Dr. Wornie Reed, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Virginia Tech.

Her cells were harvested and propagated after her death at Johns Hopkins Hospital… But nobody ever asked the family for permission.

In fact, they would not find out for another 25 years – long after medical science had been profiting from the use of her cells…eventually leading to the evolution of bio-ethics and informed consent.

In 2021, Roanoke City Council renamed Lee Plaza Downtown, Henrietta Lacks Plaza.

“This person has contributed to the entire world,” said Vice Mayor and fundraiser organizer Trish White-Boyd. “The entire world. I think that’s an amazing story and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

In 2023, a bronze statue of her, created by a local artist, was unveiled in downtown Roanoke as a permanent memorial to the “Mother of Modern Medicine.”

That same year, on what would have been her 103rd birthday, her family, several of whom have suffered chronic illness without medical insurance over the years…would finally be compensated.

[RELATED: Collection of Black History Month coverage]

“Such sacrifice that she had to give of herself that benefited all the world,” said Ben Crump, attorney for the Lacks family.

A bi-partisan bill nominating Lacks for a congressional gold medal was introduced in 2023 for her contributions to modern medicine.

Johns Hopkins, the place where it all started, is currently working to build a new multidisciplinary building on its east Baltimore campus named in honor of Henrietta.

They’ve worked alongside her descendants to create a series of programs to recognize and honor her extraordinary contribution to medicine.

Source: WSLS News 10

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