Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman originally from southern Virginia, provided the genetical material that helped to solve the riddles of polio, cancer, gene mapping, and other issues related to the human body. Despite this, Lacks died penniless. Her own family did not know about her contributions to science and society until years after her death.
As recounted in journalist Rebecca Skloot’s biography of Lacks, after Lacks came down with cervical cancer at the age of 30, she sought treatment at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. There, unbeknownst to Lacks, a doctor removed her tumor and sent it down to researchers who were then trying to grow cells. There, cells removed from Lacks’ body became known as HeLa Cells–the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture.
This breakthrough did little to save Lacks. She died in 1951 at the tender age of thirty-one. For years, scientists hid her identity behind multiple pseudonyms. Finally, journalists tracked down the real Henrietta Lacks in the 1970s.