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We Continue to Owe Henrietta Lacks Our Thanks

On October 13, 2021, The World Health Organization (WHO) bestowed a posthumous award on the late Henrietta Lacks recognizing her life, legacy, and contribution to medical science.

Ms. Lacks was an African American woman who died of cervical cancer 70 years ago on October 4, 1951. While she sought treatment, researchers took biopsies from Ms. Lacks’ body without her knowledge or consent. Her cells became the first “immortal” cell line allowing for incalculable scientific breakthroughs such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, the polio vaccine, drugs for HIV and cancers, and most recently, critical COVID-19 research.

Shockingly, the global scientific community once hid Henrietta Lacks’ race and her real story. The WHO admits the historic wrong and their recognition seeks to acknowledge the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices and advancing racial equity in health and science. According to the WHO Director General Dr. Bestows: “It’s also an opportunity to recognize women - particularly women of color who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”

The award was received at the WHO office in Geneva by Lawrence Lacks, Mrs. Lacks’ 87-year-old son. He is one of the last living relatives who personally knew her. Mr. Lacks was accompanied by several of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other family members. (WHO News Release October 13, 2021).

—Joyce Butts, Contributor to OTP

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