Ken Plum: An immortal Virginian

Ask Virginians the name of a native of the Commonwealth who has had the greatest impact on history, and you are likely to get a variety of answers. Few are likely to give the name of the Virginian whom I believe has had and will continue to have the greatest influence on human history: Henrietta Lacks. Unfortunately few have heard of her, and her name does not appear in many history books. All that is changing with the 2010 publication of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta was born in 1920 in Roanoke and grew up in Clover in Southside Virginia. She moved to Baltimore as an adult. She died at age 31 of cancer. Her body was returned to Clover and buried in an unmarked grave in a family burial plot. What Henrietta never knew and her family has only in recent years found out is that when she was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, small tissue samples were removed from her body. Amazingly, the cells from these samples did what scientists had never seen before. They could be kept alive and grown. The cell line that was started was named for its unwitting donor “HeLa” and became the first immortal cell line.

HeLa cells were used by Dr. Jonas Salk to help develop a vaccine for polio. The cells have been used around the world for research into cancer, AIDS, effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, human sensitivity to many substances, and others too numerous to mention here. It is estimated that scientists have grown more than 20 tons of her cells. More than 11,000 patents have been granted involving the cells. Henrietta nor her family ever received any compensation.

This week the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is erecting a roadside marker near Clover to recognize her important contribution to medical science. I hope to attend its unveiling. I recommend reading Skloot’s book. A documentary has been produced, and more are likely to follow. A humble African American woman of very limited means has had a profound effect on all our lives. She may truly be the only immortal Virginian.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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