Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and cell culture contamination

Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2009 Sep;133(9):1463-7. doi: 10.5858/133.9.1463.


Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 of an aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix. A tissue biopsy obtained for diagnostic evaluation yielded additional tissue for Dr George O. Gey's tissue culture laboratory at Johns Hopkins (Baltimore, Maryland). The cancer cells, now called HeLa cells, grew rapidly in cell culture and became the first human cell line. HeLa cells were used by researchers around the world. However, 20 years after Henrietta Lacks' death, mounting evidence suggested that HeLa cells contaminated and overgrew other cell lines. Cultures, supposedly of tissues such as breast cancer or mouse, proved to be HeLa cells. We describe the history behind the development of HeLa cells, including the first published description of Ms Lacks' autopsy, and the cell culture contamination that resulted. The debate over cell culture contamination began in the 1970s and was not harmonious. Ultimately, the problem was not resolved and it continues today. Finally, we discuss the philosophical implications of the immortal HeLa cell line.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma / history*
  • Adenocarcinoma / pathology
  • Cell Culture Techniques / history*
  • Cell Culture Techniques / methods
  • Cell Culture Techniques / standards
  • Female
  • HeLa Cells*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Medical Oncology / history*
  • Tissue Banks
  • Uterine Cervical Dysplasia / history*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / history*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / pathology

Personal name as subject

  • Henrietta Lacks