n South African Medical Journal - The extraordinary story of the life after death of Henrietta Lacks

Volume 101, Issue 3
  • ISSN : 0256-9574
  • E-ISSN: 2078-5135



Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, on 4 October 1951 at the age of 31. Some 25 years later, her husband received a jaw-dropping call from Dr Susan Hsu, an immigrant Chinese genetics researcher in Baltimore. 'We've got your wife. She's alive in a laboratory. We've been doing research on her for the last 25 years. And now we have to test your kids to see if they have cancer.' At least that is how Day Lacks, an indigent black tobacco farmer from Virginia with only a third-grade education, recalled the conversation. But he had only grasped half the story. The other half was lost in the scientific jargon of cells and cell culture, the halting English of the researcher, and Day's deep-Southern black vernacular.

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