Henrietta Lacks

Two Maryland senators and four representatives, all Democrats, have introduced a resolution in Congress to honor Henrietta Lacks, who for more than half a century went unrecognized for her posthumous contributions to medical research.

On Wednesday, roughly a month after one of Lacks’ sons called for a congressional inquiry into Johns Hopkins’ well-chronicled use of her cells for medical research and a suspension of NIH funding for the school, members of Maryland’s congressional delegation moved to honor her during Women’s History Month. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Elijah Cummings, Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and John Delaney introduced the resolution.

“Some people’s contributions are measured by the number of lives they touched, and others by lives they saved,” said Cardin in a statement. “You can measure the contributions of Henrietta Lacks in both ways, and the totals will continue to increase far into the future, as more and more families are spared the loss of their loved ones owing to the medical advances that Ms. Lacks’ cells enabled.”

Lacks was born in Roanoke in 1920, but moved to Baltimore County during the 1940s after she married her husband. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951 and died eight months later at Johns Hopkins Hospital. But shortly after her diagnosis, researchers collected some of her cells, which they soon learned were “immortal” and were doubling every day outside the human body.

The rest was history. Researchers used them to research and help treat AIDS, cancer, polio, hemophilia, Parkinson’s and other diseases, as well as for gene mapping. However, they never gave her credit, as chronicled in Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book and, soon, Oprah Winfrey’s HBO movie. Not until this decade did the NIH cede control of the cells to the Lacks family and agree to acknowledge them in any research. Hopkins has also attempted to make amends by creating a lectureship and scholarship in her name.

This week, the half-dozen Maryland members of Congress said they felt Women’s History Month was an appropriate time to officially recognize Lacks’ contributions to science. Cummings said he was “proud” to introduce the resolution and that he hopes more people will learn about her role in medical research.

“I can think of few Marylanders – or even Americans – more deserving of this recognition than Henrietta Lacks,” said Ruppersberger in his statement.

In a show of support among Democrats, 37 other members of Congress co-sponsored the resolution. Beyond the listing of Lacks’ accomplishments and the recap of the controversy regarding her legacy, the measure asks that Congress “celebrate the life of Henrietta Lacks,” “honors Henrietta Lacks as a hero of modern medicine” and “recognizes Henrietta Lacks’ legacy.”

It’s now sitting on someone’s desk in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, though it shouldn’t have trouble passing through this session.

The resolution comes as Lacks’ family is publicly divided over the portrayal of their family in the upcoming HBO special about her life, set to premiere on April 22. Lawrence Lacks said in a statement this week that Hopkins, the network and Skloot “say they’re helping our family when they’re not. That makes our life even harder and more complicated.”

Other members of the family put out their own statement in support of the film, “despite the pain we have experienced.”

Avatar photo

Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...