My first two years of college i was a Biochemistry major. You couldn't major just in Biology at LSU at the time; you could do Microbiology or Zoology or Biochem, maybe even Botany. I had a student job in a lab, which meant i washed a lot of dishes, made a lot of copies and generally ran errands for the grad students. One semester they had me "map" one of the freezers. there were maybe 4 shelves filled with these little boxes that were a 4 inch cube. inside were about 20 small tubes, held vertically by a card board grid. I would take each box out of the freezer, nestle it in a cooler surrounded by dry ice, then pull off the lid and check the contents of the box against a paper grid map done a couple years before. It was rather tedious but much easier than making copies of articles. I didn't understand the codes I was writing and the code HeLa came up in a good number of boxes, followed by at least a date and the researcher's initials.
Unlike Rebecca Skloot, I never heard anything in any of my classes about what HeLa stood for. Until I started reading about her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I didn't even know they were human cells, as the lab i was in had people working with fruit flies, salamanders, and these funky African frogs. It is strange to think now that i held these cells in my hands, in fact years before her own family was able to do so when Skloot was researching the book.
It is an incredibly broad story. It is about the history of cell science and medical research and bioethics. It is about the Lacks family, how they were affected by the loss of their mother, the shocking news that her cells continued to thrive, how they were used by the medical research establishment without their own informed consent. It is a really great book, highly recommended. a 7.
Here's the website for the foundation Rebecca Skloot started to benefit the Lacks family and others who've been used in research without their knowledge and/or consent, like the Tuskegee airmen. There's going to be movie done by HBO and Henrietta's three surviving sons are all paid consultants on it. Henrietta's family is finally benefiting from their mother's extraordinary legacy.