Henrietta Lacks

(courtesy of Karen Collins)

Veronica Spencer seems to thrive on speaking to audiences about the heartbreaking story of a great-grandmother who became famous because of her cells.

“I love the travel,” Spencer said, during a visit Thursday to Maryville University. “I get to see the world, visit places I never expected to go. When someone hugs me and says thanks, I realize the person they are talking about is my great-grandmother who has done all of this for the world."

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: HeLa cells have been known to scientists since the 1950s. But the name Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were the basis of groundbreaking research, only became widely recognized with the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in 2010.

Shirley Lacks, left, and Veronica Spencer
Hilary Davidson

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died from ovarian cancer in 1951. Treated in the “colored only” ward at Johns Hopkins, she was not informed when her rapidly dividing cancer cells were taken from her and cultured. Lacks died from cancer at the age of 31, but her cancer cells proved immortal, growing so splendidly in culture that the “HeLa” cells are still used today in research. 

The book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, captures the betrayal that the Lacks family felt, not having consented to or known about the research, and the irony that family members did not have health insurance.