'HeLa' Herself

Celebrating the woman who gave the world its first immortalized cell line

Terry Sharrer
Jul 1, 2006
<figcaption>Henrietta Lacks Credit: COURTESY OF TERRY SHARRER</figcaption>
Henrietta Lacks Credit: COURTESY OF TERRY SHARRER

Next year, the state of Virginia will celebrate its 400th anniversary, and no doubt Old Dominion will find new ways to celebrate its notable sons and daughters - from George Washington to Pat Robertson, Pocahontas to Katie Couric. Certainly, African-American Virginians, including Arthur Ashe, Booker T. Washington, and Douglas Wilder, will be recognized during this jubilee. Hopefully the commonwealth will also note Henrietta Pleasant Lacks, the world's first immortalized life.

Born in 1920 in the heart of southern Virginia's tobacco-growing region, Henrietta Pleasant grew up in Halifax County and married her teenage sweetheart, David Lacks, in 1935. Tobacco farming prospered while the nation struggled through the Great Depression, but after World War II began, industrial jobs in the North beckoned for a better life. David went ahead first, to Baltimore, where he took a job in Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point shipyard, and bought...