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6 Facts You Should Know Before Watching 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

The amazing story of a Black woman with unique cells is so much deeper than many know.


On Saturday, HBO will premiere its highly anticipated film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks starring Oprah Winfrey, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Courtney B. Vance and Rose Bryne.

But before you tune in to the film based on the life of a black woman whose unique cells changed modern science, there are a few things you should know.

Baltimore Isn’t Her Hometown

Henrietta, born Loretta Pleasant, was a tobacco farmer in Roanoke, Virginia before moving her with husband and their two kids to Baltimore at 21 years old. They later had three more children. 

She Was Misdiagnosed With Cervical Cancer

At Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she stayed in their “colored” ward, Henrietta was told she had cervical cancer when she actually had adenocarcinoma, a type of cancerous tumor. She died at the age of 31, four months after giving birth to her fifth child.

Henrietta’s Cells Were Taken Without Permission

Before she died, her tumor cells were removed, and researchers were astonished that the cells thrived in the lab. A researcher by the name of George Otto Gey was the first to notice what happened, but the Lacks’ family was never informed. 

HeLa Cells Were Reproduced Multiple Times

Her special cells were called HeLa — derived from her first and last name. But Henrietta’s identity remained anonymous. “Scientists have grown some 50 million metric tons of her cells, and you can get some for yourself simply by calling an 800 number,” as reported by The New York Times. “HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers.”

She Loved Red Lipstick and Her Family

In the HBO film viewers will learn more about the vibrant, young woman who enjoyed time with her five children and was into her statement red lipstick.

Her Family Was Finally Vindicated

It took 62 years, but the medical community acknowledged what was taken from the Lacks family in August 2013. In an agreement made with the family, the National Institutes of Health granted them some control over how Henrietta Lacks’s genome will be used in the future. 

HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” premieres Saturday, April 22 at 8pm ET/PT.

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