Henrietta Lacks – her cells live on sixty years after her death

This week’s story is a little different. Henrietta Lacks didn’t have an extraordinary life, or any notable achievements. But her cells have been used to develop chemotherapy drugs, vaccines and in-vitro fertilisation, as well as being part of the human genome project. And she didn’t even give her permission for them to be used.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Virginia in 1920. After her mother died in 1924, Henrietta’s father couldn’t cope with his ten children and sent Henrietta to live with her grandfather in a log cabin that had been the slave quarters of a white ancestor’s tobacco plantation. She shared a room with her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks. At the age of 14, Henrietta gave birth to Day’s son, Lawrence. The cousins had a daughter, Elsie, in 1939, and married in 1941. At this point, Day got a job at a steel mill and moved to Maryland. There, they had three more children: David Jr., Deborah and Joseph, and reluctantly placed their daughter Elsie, who was developmentally disabled, in the Hospital for the Negro Insane.

In 1951, Henrietta went into a charity hospital that treated black patients, complaining of ‘a knot in my womb’ and was told that she had inoperable cervical cancer. In fact her cancer was so invasive that tumours had covered her kidneys, bladder, ovaries and uterus, as well as peppering every organ in her body. She died at the age of 31, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

But this story has a twist: Henrietta’s cells lived on after she died. Dr. George Otto Gey noticed that the aggressive nature of her cancer had allowed her cells to grow and reproduce exceptionally quickly in culture. Most human cells survived only a few days, but Henrietta’s cells were able to proliferate indefinitely. Without asking the family’s permission – it wasn’t required at the time – Gey created a cell line, HeLa. This opened up the opportunity for experiments that had previously not been possible on ethical grounds – these cells could be exposed to toxins, radiations and drugs. Today there are millions Henrietta’s cells in medical laboratories around the world.

For Henrietta’s children, the legacy of their mother’s cells was a difficult one. They didn’t know the cell line existed until Lawrence’s wife found out in a chance conversation with a cancer researcher. In 1973, a scientist contacted the family after the HeLa cell lines became contaminated, and took cell samples from family members. But the scientists didn’t explain to the family why they were testing them – Deborah was convinced she was being tested for the cancer that killed her mother. And while Henrietta’s cells were making pharmaceutical companies rich, her children were all in poor health and couldn’t even afford medical insurance.

But the world became aware of the injustice that had been done, thanks to a 1998 BBC documentary and Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta’s grandchildren are the first generation of the family to receive a college education, and spend time educating others on the impact of how human cells are used in research. Two family representatives serve on a committee reviewing controlled access to the HeLa genome data. The family will never see a cent of the profits generated by the HeLa cell line, but they’ve been honored at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Foundation for Cancer Research. Morgan State University granted Henrietta an honorary degree. And her grave now bears a headstone, which reads: “Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.”


Veuve Clicquot – la Grande Dame of international business

I’m indulging my interests again this week, as I’ve discovered a fascinating story behind my favourite champagne. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born in Reims in 1777 to a wealthy family, and married Francois Clicquot at the age of 21. But her husband died just 6 years later, probably killed by his own champagne. Believe it or not, it was a common treatment for typhoid. He left Barbe-Nicole with a child and a struggling business of which champagne only formed a small part: the rest involved banking, wool trading and wine.

The Napoleonic Code at the time dictated that a woman’s place was in the home. But instead, Barbe-Nicole discovered that widows were the only women who were allowed any social freedom. With financial help from her father in law, she took over the running of the business and focused entirely on champagne, renaming the champagne house in her name: veuve is French for widow. But the early years were difficult; she sold her jewellery to keep the business afloat. She was also frustrated by the quality of her early efforts. Champagne at the time was sweet and cloudy, with big bubbles. She helped develop a new technique called riddling, which allows the sediment of dead yeast to collect in the neck where it can easily be removed, and is a key component of the méthode champenoise that is still used today.

1811 brought a superb grape harvest, and the glut of good wine caused prices to plummet. So Barbe-Nicole turned the wine into champagne, which meant that it wasn’t ready for market until the winter of 1812, a gamble that didn’t help her cash flow. It wasn’t the best time to be building a business empire: the Napoleonic Wars had plunged France into turmoil. But Barbe-Nicole turned the situation to her advantage. When Reims was taken over by the Russian Army, she served her champagne to the officers. When the war put a stop to commercial shipping, she managed to sneak a boat around the armada, delivering 10,000 bottles of the 1811 champagne to Russia. When it reached St Petersburg, Czar Alexander insisted on drinking nothing else. Within two years, Barbe-Nicole was the head of a commercial empire – one of the first women to do so. Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 set the scene for champagne becoming synonymous with celebration.

Now Barbe-Nicole had the best product in the world, had developed an international market and decided to make her brand instantly recognizable, by putting bright yellow labels on the bottles. The labels feature an anchor in the middle of a star, which represents the great comet of 1811, which was believed to have caused the legendary vintage of that year. By the 1820s, she was exporting 175,000 bottles a year.
Sadly, professional success came at personal cost. Barbe-Nicole thought nothing of working from seven in the morning until ten at night. She sent her daughter away to a convent boarding school in Paris, and later encouraged her to lead a more conventional life; she married a nobleman.

Barbe-Nicole died in 1866, but her legacy lives on in a product that everyone recognizes. Veuve Clicquot also produces a prestige product in exceptional vintages called La Grande Dame, a tribute to its founder. In 1972, an award was launched in her name to recognize the achievement of female entrepreneurs and business leaders. Shortly before her death, she wrote to a great-grandchild: “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.”