Henrietta Lacks’ “immortal” cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They played a vital role in developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Her cells have been used in cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. The story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of. These themes struck a chord with me. Not only were they representative of Memento Mori but they also introduced a different way of living on after death.