The Way of All Flesh (1997)
BBC, by Adam Curtis
This is the story of the cells of Henriettta Lacks. She dies in 1951 of cancer, before she died cells were removed from her body and cultivated in a laboratory in the hope that they could help find a cure for cancer. The cells (known as the HeLa line) have been growing ever since, and the scientists found that they were growing in ways they could not control. Henrietta Lacks (August 18, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was the unwitting donor of cells from her cancerous tumor, which were cultured by George Otto Gey to create an immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line.
Researchers "discovered that [Henrietta's] cells did something they'd never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow." According to reporter Michael Rogers, the subsequent development of HeLa by a researcher at the hospital helped answer the demands of 10,000 who marched for a cure to polio just a few days before. By 1954, HeLa was used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. As stated by reporter Van Smith in 2002 a demand for HeLa cells "quickly rose ... the cells were put into mass production and traveled around the globe- even into space, on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity". Smith continued, "In the half-century since Henrietta Lacks' death, her ... cells ... have continually been used for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits". HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products.
In 1996 Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and the mayor of Atlanta recognized the late Henrietta Lacks' family for her posthumous contributions. Her life was commemorated annually by Turners Station residents for a few years after Morehouse's commemoration. A Congressional resolution in her honor was presented by Robert Ehrlich following soon after the first commemoration of her, her family, and her contributions to science in Turners Station.
In 1998, Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh, a documentary on Lacks and HeLa directed by Adam Curtis, won the Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Immediately following the film's airing in 1997, an article on HeLa cells, Lacks, and her family was published by reporter Jacques Kelly in the Baltimore Sun. Since the 1950s, news on Lacks and on HeLa has been and continues to be published throughout the world in newspapers, magazines, and in scientific journals, books, and other academic publications. In the 1990s the Dundalk Eagle published the first article on her in a newspaper in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and it continues to announce upcoming local commemorative activities. The Lacks family was also honored at the Smithsonian Institution. In 2001 it was announced in a July 18, 2001 press release that the National Foundation for Cancer Research would be honoring "the late Henrietta Lacks for the contributions made to cancer research and modern medicine" on September 14. Because of the events of September 11, 2001 the date for honoring her was changed.
Events in the Turner Station's community have also commemorated the contributions of others including Mary Kubicek, the laboratory assistant who discovered that HeLa cells lived outside the body, as well as Dr. Gey and his nurse wife, Margaret Gey, who together after over 20 years of attempts were eventually able to grow human cells outside of the body.
In her book on Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot documents the effect of what happened to the family of Lacks after the biopsy in which her cells were taken. David Lacks was told little following her death. Suspicions fueled by racial issues prevalent in the South were compounded by issues of class and education. While the scientific community viewed the cells simply as human tissue that would lead the way for scientific advances, Lacks was still a wife, sister and mother to her family members. For their part, members of the Lacks family were kept in the dark about the existence of the tissue line. When its existence was revealed, the family was both confused on how this could happen, but also what the existence of the HeLa cell line meant as far as their mother's mortality and immortality were concerned. While the ethical battle raged over the cell line, the Lacks family grew angry with those who took the tissue, and their cavalier manner in which they shared Henrietta's cells, and later sold the cell lines.