Historical marker honoring Henrietta Lacks unveiled in Roanoke

Published: Apr. 14, 2023 at 5:08 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - A new historical marker celebrating a once-forgotten but now-remembered hometown hero was unveiled Friday.

Born in Roanoke more than 100 years ago, Henrietta Lacks continues to live on throughout the world.

“It is important for people to know that she contributed to millions of lives being saved,” said City Council Member Trish White-Boyd.

In 1951, Lacks died from cervical cancer at John Hopkins. Doctors collected her cells without her permission. They learned Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours instead of dying like other patients.

“Researchers have been able to use her cells in different ways,” said Virginia Tech Health Sciences and Technology Associate Vice President Hal Irvin.

The cells, called HeLa cells, have been used to study the impact of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses. Today they continue to be used and played a role in developing polio and COVID-19 vaccines.

“We learned from that because of her in large part. And we ensure now that any sort of involvement of patient cells follows a process where they’re reviewed,” added Irvin.

This story is now told in a historical marker placed in Perry Park, where Lacks was born. The marker was sponsored by the Carilion Clinic Foundation.

Historian Nelson Harris says the marker is special not only because of who it celebrates but where it’s placed.

“It just reminds us that all neighborhoods, all areas of the city, contribute to the legacy and the history and the story of Roanoke,” said Harris.

It’s a marker that will help keep Lack’s legacy alive, just like her cells.

“No one in Roanoke should not be able to answer the question, who is Henrietta Lacks? She is our native daughter. And her contributions and her legacy and her immortal cell line are of global significance,” explained Harris.

White-Boyd shared the bronze statue planned for Henrietta Lacks will be unveiled October 4 - which Governor Youngkin has declared Henrietta Lacks Day.