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The People Who Made Your Health

by: Zoe Waters

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks (Credit: Lacks Family)

Henrietta Lacks was a mother of five who, in her early 30s, was experiencing fatal cervical cancer. During testing, they scraped her cells and later noticed that they doubled, and even tripled, quicker than anything they had ever seen before. These cells were deemed HeLa cells and claimed to be from a woman named Helen Lane or Helen Larson.

Little is known of Henrietta, but we do know that she was not informed of the impact her cells were making on science. Her consent was never sought nor given and it was not until the late 1970s that her real name was released to the public. The HeLa cell has done wonders in cancer research, being the first human cell having success in in vitro, eradicating polio, and even testing how humans would react to being in space for long periods of time. It’s said now that, if added, all of the current HeLa cells would equal a few tons and stretch around the world three times, far more than the total amount of cells Henrietta had in her body. 

Henrietta passed away in 1951 leaving her children behind. Her family was never given any recognition or economic benefit after they found out what had come from her cells. Her cells have lived outside of her body longer than they ever have within and are deemed one of the best things to ever happen to healthcare in over 100 years. There is still little-known information about her and only a few photos that exist today. 


Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey 

Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom (Credit: Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine)

Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey were three named women out of ten total women that J. Marion Sims operated on to perfect his gynecological practice. These women were seen as property as they were enslaved and therefore, not asked for their consent in these practices. They were brought to Sims by their slaveholders in hopes that Sims would “fix” them. These women gave way for the invention of the speculum and the Sims position, or the position in which a person lays for a rectal examination to assess vaginal wall prolapse. 

Anarcha Westcott, a 17-year-old, was seen by Sims to help during her 3rd day of labor. Her child was stillborn, and she went home, later returning for help from complications from her birth: unhealed vaginal and rectal tears as well as uncontrollable bowel movements. Anarcha endured over 30 recorded surgeries at the hands of Sims, all without any form of anesthetic and all considered experimental at the time. Through these excruciating surgeries, Sims created and perfected the first ever treatment for vesicovaginal fistula that is still used today. 

Lucy Zimmerman and Betsey Harris were the only two other recorded names although the only known notes about their operations is that Lucy was in so much pain, she cried out that she felt like she was going to die, and that Betsey was practiced on tremendously until he perfected the speculum. 

After Sims used Black women to perfect his practice, he moved to New York where he operated on white women in the exact same ways, this time around choosing to use anesthetic. Very little is known about these three women and there is still a search for more information about them happening today. It's still a little-known fact that modern gynecology was built through harming Black bodies. 


Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment 

Participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (Credit: The National Archives)

In 1932, over 600 Black men were recruited for a study under the guise of free medical care in Macon County, Alabama. The study was supposed to study the effects of untreated syphilis on the body and inform treatment procedures. 399 of them had been diagnosed with syphilis and 201 of them did not; none of them were properly treated. 

Many of these men had never visited a doctor before and were being told they were being treated for “bad blood,” looked after by various health professionals. They were given placebos in the form of supplements and aspirin, nothing more. Because of this, the men that were being studied often faced health problems from total loss of vision and/or  mental health issues, to death.

In 1972, Jean Heller of the Associated Press released what was happening in Macon County to the public and the study was shut down. 128 men had died from the disease and it’s complications and at least 40 partners and 19 children had contracted syphilis from the experiment. The following year, surviving participants and their family members received $10 million dollars in reparations. The final participant from the study passed away in 2004. 


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