Johns Hopkins University Names Medical Building After Henrietta Lacks

In the early 1950s, the university's hospital stole cells from Lacks, who has been called the "mother of modern medicine."

Johns Hopkins University just announced that the school will name a new research building after Henrietta Lacks, the “mother of modern medicine” whose cancer cells revolutionized medical research.

“Through her life and her immortal cells, Henrietta Lacks made an immeasurable impact on science and medicine that has touched countless lives around the world,” Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels said during the university’s 9th annual Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture on Saturday.

“This building will stand as a testament to her transformative impact on scientific discovery and the ethics that must undergird its pursuit,” he continued. “We at Johns Hopkins are profoundly grateful to the Lacks family for their partnership as we continue to learn from Mrs. Lacks’ life and to honor her enduring legacy.”

The building will be located just north of the Johns Hopkins hospital and will support programs that “enhance participation and partnership with members of the community in research that can benefit the community,” according to a press release.

Lacks was a black woman who was born on a tobacco farm in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920. In 1951, at 31 years old, the mother of five visited Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of stomach pain that later turned out to be cervical cancer. Her cancer cells were biopsied and later used without her permission to create the first immortal cell line, known as the HeLa cell.

The HeLa cells were used to develop the first polio vaccine in 1952, and have since been used to study the impact of zero gravity on human cells, identified abnormality in chromosomes and aided in studying the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes the cervical cancer that eventually killed Lacks.

Lacks and her story were relatively unknown until 2010 when journalist Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In 2017, the New York Times best-selling book was made into a film titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne.

Lacks’ granddaughter, Jeri Lacks, and other family members attended the Saturday announcement.

“It is a proud day for the Lacks family. We have been working with Hopkins for many years now on events and projects that honor our grandmother,” Jeri Lacks said. “They are all meaningful, but this is the ultimate honor, one befitting of her role in advancing modern medicine.”

Construction on the building is set to begin in 2020 and will hopefully be completed by 2022.