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Students at Evans High School in Evans, Georgia celebrate their first Henrietta Lacks Day

By Dana McCullough, Biology Teacher, Evans High School

On October 4, 2011, the Evans High School Multicultural Club and Evans High School Biology teachers invited the entire staff and student body of Evans High School to celebrate the life of Henrietta Lacks.  Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital on this day in 1951.  Henrietta Lacks may have died on this day, but her cells, called HeLa cells, are still living in laboratories all over the world.  “Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture.  They were essential to developing the polio vaccine.  They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity.  Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization” (Zielinski, 2010).  This is an incredible story told by Rebecca Skloot in her award-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  This book makes a wonderful springboard for discussions concerning civil rights and medical ethics as well as the science behind these miraculous cells.  Another interesting subject covered in the book involves the Lacks family.  The family receives no monetary compensation from laboratories and drug companies using HeLa cells and they cannot afford healthcare.

On our first Henrietta Lack’s Day, teachers at Evans shared information about Henrietta Lacks with each of their classes.  We hoped that everyone would hear the story, find it interesting, and want to read the book for him or herself.  Teachers received information to share with students.  Everyone was invited to wear red and honor Henrietta Lacks by keeping her story alive.  Staff members, Multicultural Club members, and Biology students each wore a sticker depicting the book jacket for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  In order to wear a sticker and red ribbon, one must be willing to share the story of Henrietta Lacks with anyone who asked about her.  Random House provided permission for us to use the book jacket on our stickers as well as the posters that were used throughout the school.  Signs to remind students to “Wear Red in Honor of Henrietta Lacks” were posted around the school as well.  Short excerpts from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks were shared on the morning television broadcast for several days prior to the event.  During our lunch periods, music from the era when Henrietta Lacks lived and danced on Saturday nights was played in the school commons area.  Dance tunes of Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington Orchestra, Count Basie, Glen Miller, and Frank Sinatra were featured.

Why wear red?  After a painful bout with cancer, Henrietta Lacks passed away at the Johns Hopkins Hospital on October 4, 1951.  Dr. George Gey had a laboratory in the hospital basement.  He had worked for years to grow human cells outside the body.  His lab assistants had been collecting tissue samples from patients routinely.  Henrietta’s cells were the first cells that ever grew.  When Henrietta had surgery, Dr. Gey’s assistant Mary was sent to collect a sample of her cells and label the sample with the famous HeLa designation.  Mary went to the morgue where Henrietta’s autopsy was taking place to collect another sample for Dr. Gey.  When Mary saw the body, “she wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, but instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs—anything to avoid looking into her lifeless eyes.  Then Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped:  Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish” (Skloot, 2010, p. 90).  “When I saw those toenails . . . I thought, oh jeeze, she’s a real person.  I started imagining her sitting and painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman.  I’d never thought of it that way” (Skloot, 2010, pp. 90-91).   We want everyone to know that HeLa cells came from a real person, with a real family.

Planning this day started the very day I heard about Henrietta Lacks for the first time.  I was sitting in a doctoral class and my professor, John Weaver, asked if I had read Rebecca Skloot’s book.  As a Biology teacher with two biology degrees, I had heard of HeLa but never Henrietta Lacks.  When I went to our assistant principal’s office and told her I needed to talk to her about Henrietta Lacks, she informed me that she did not serve the “L” section of the alphabet and I should go and speak to Mr. Hooper.  Once I got through to her that Henrietta was not a student at our school with a discipline issue but instead someone who should be a very famous person, I was given permission to proceed.  I enlisted the help of the Evans High Multicultural Club and their sponsor, Mrs. Myrtis Robinson-Speight.  Our day was very successful.  I visited a construction class at the end of the day.  The biology students in the class were answering questions about Henrietta Lacks.  Their teacher reported that the discussion had been so good he allowed them to continue.  The students, teachers, custodians, lunchroom ladies, and administrators found Henrietta’s story to be as amazing as I did on that day in June when my professor shared it with me.  We plan to make this an annual event.   On October 4 each year, the students and faculty of Evans High School will wear red and share the story of Henrietta Lacks.  I personally will paint my toenails bright red to honor Henrietta!

Henrietta Lacks Foundation.  (2010-2011). Retrieved September 27, 2011, from    _____

Skloot, R. (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Hardcover

Zielinski, S. (2010, January 22). Retrieved September 29, 2011, from Science and _____Nature: