WHO Honors ‘Mother’ of Modern Medicine Henrietta Lacks

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Oct. 13 honored Henrietta Lacks whose cells, which were taken without her knowledge or consent, led to crucial medical research worldwide.

“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“It’s also an opportunity to recognize women — particularly women of color — who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science,” Tedros further said.

When Lacks sought treatment and was diagnosed with cervical cancer, researchers took biopsies from her body without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. Her cells, which are now known as the HeLa cells, became the first “immortal” cell line that led to medical breakthroughs, including the HPV vaccine, the polio vaccine, and critical COVID-19 research.

Lacks, who was named “mother” of modern medicine, died at the age of 31 on Oct. 4, 1951. Her cells were mass produced for profit without recognition of her family.

Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s 87-year-old son and one of the last living relatives who personally knew her, received the award at the WHO office in Geneva, Switzerland.

“We are moved to receive this historic recognition of my mother, Henrietta Lacks – honoring who she was as a remarkable woman and the lasting impact of her HeLa cells. My mother’s contributions, once hidden, are now being rightfully honored for their global impact,” Lawrence said.

Several of Henrietta’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other family members attended the awarding ceremony.

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