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WHO honors Henrietta Lacks, Black woman who became ‘immortal’ through cell line

The World Health Organization (WHO) posthumously honored Henrietta Lacks on Wednesday, a woman whose cells were taken without her awareness and later contributed to major scientific milestones. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus commemorated the American on Wednesday by giving out a WHO Director-General’s award. Lacks, a Black woman who died 70 years ago from cervical cancer, had the first cells to be considered “immortal,” or able to continually replicate themselves. 

Her cells, however, were taken by researchers without her awareness or consent — a controversy that gained more national attention after the publication of Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” 

Ghebreyesus took the opportunity to reflect on the scientific contributions that Lacks’ cells provided — including in the polio and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, COVID-19 research and cancer and HIV drugs — while also acknowledging the racial injustice and inequities that contributed to those discoveries.

“In honoring Henrietta Lacks, WHO acknowledges the importance of reckoning with past scientific injustices, and advancing racial equity in health and science,” Tedros said in a statement. “It’s also an opportunity to recognize women — particularly women of color — who have made incredible but often unseen contributions to medical science.”

Accepting the award in Geneva, Switzerland on behalf of his mother, Lawrence Lacks Sr. called his mother a “remarkable woman” and a “pioneer.” 

“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,” her oldest son said in a statement.

“My mother was a pioneer in life, giving back to her community, helping others live a better life and caring for others. In death she continues to help the world,” he added. “Her legacy lives on in us and we thank you for saying her name — Henrietta Lacks.” 

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