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Views & Reviews Review of the Week

Who owns my cells?

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 30 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1598
  1. Janice Hopkins Tanne, medical journalist, New York
  1. Janice{at}

    Henrietta Lacks’s cells, the first human cells grown in culture, had a great impact on medicine for more than half a century, finds Janice Hopkins Tanne

    Henrietta Lacks was a beautiful young black woman, the mother of five children, when in 1951 she came to the “colored wards” of Johns Hopkins medical centre in Baltimore, Maryland, complaining of “a knot on my womb.”

    She had moved from the tobacco farm where she worked in rural Virginia to a segregated community on the outskirts of Baltimore, where her husband worked in a plant turning out steel for the war effort. She had an aggressive cervical adenocarcinoma that killed her within a year, when she was only 31.

    Her cells, removed in a biopsy, became an industry. No one told her or her family; they were distraught when they finally heard her story in poorly understood bits and pieces.

    Seldom do you read a book that is science, social history, and a page turner. Rebecca Skloot’s book about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells is one.

    The doctors who treated Mrs Lacks had been doing research for decades, trying to prove the then controversial idea …

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