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In a case that revealed the exploitation of a Black woman beginning in the 1950s and extending for 70 years, Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. settled a lawsuit that the estate of Henrietta Lacks had filed against the biotech firm for its role in what the lawsuit called "a racially unjust medical system."
In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, one of the only hospitals in the area that would treat African Americans at the time. During her treatment, a sample of her cancer cells was taken without her knowledge or consent. In the lawsuit, Thermo Fisher was accused of unjust enrichment and illegally profiting from Lacks' genetic material. "Black suffering has fueled innumerable medical progress and profit, without just compensation or recognition," the lawsuit said.
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Henrietta Lacks' cells, known as HeLa cells, have had a profound impact on medical science since they were first taken from Lacks in 1951. Those cells have contributed to the development of the polio vaccine, research into cancer, studies on the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping and countless other scientific pursuits.
But nearly all of these advancements happened without her and her family's approval – or compensation.
Lacks is one of the most well-known examples of medical exploitation on a Black body. It is far from the only example.
Medical Abuse Is a Part of Black History
In 2020, the American Public Health Association declared racism a public health crisis.
The declaration, while important, speaks solely to present inequities and plans to advance racial equity in the future. But minimal attention has been afforded to the deep historical roots of anti-Black racism in the medical industry.
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Medical exploitation and intentional abuse of members of the Black community is an often overlooked part of Black history. But understanding the issue is critical in order to better analyze today's mistrust of the medical profession by many in the Black community.
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