Leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus, alongside the family of medical pioneer Henrietta Lacks, gathered in the nation’s capital to announce their unanimous support for the pioneer to receive the esteemed Congressional Gold Medal posthumously.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, a prominent advocate for social justice, expressed his endorsement of this significant recognition. “Today, I joined leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus and the family of medical pioneer Henrietta Lacks to announce our unanimous support for her to receive the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously,” Crump stated. “She is beyond worthy of this distinguished honor.”
Congressman Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) pledged to reintroduce legislation to honor Lacks with the nation’s highest civilian award in acknowledgment of what he called her indelible contributions to modern medicine.
Lacks, a Black woman from Baltimore, unknowingly propelled medical science forward when her cancer cells were used to advance breakthroughs in the polio vaccine and treatments for cancer, HIV, and Parkinson’s disease.
Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, unaware of the profound impact her cells would have on future medical advancements. During her treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the medical staff utilized Lacks’ cancer cells without her knowledge or consent, to advance medical therapies.
The groundbreaking HeLa cell line was created from those cells, marking the birth of the first immortal line of human cells. The push to honor Lacks comes as her family wages a legal battle against a biotech company that they accuse of selling her tissue without their consent.
In a lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific, the family alleges that the company used Lacks’ living cell samples that were collected in 1951 during a medical procedure. They allege Thermo Fisher Scientific collected the samples without permission and that the company continues to unjustly profit from Lacks without compensating her estate.
Christopher Seeger, one of the Lack family attorneys, vowed his team wouldn’t rest until the family has been properly compensated. He also said Lacks’ family wants to safeguard the rights of all patients.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) acknowledged Lacks for her invaluable contributions to medical research, which he said have benefited millions of people worldwide. “The debt of gratitude we owe Henrietta Lacks can never be fully repaid for her invaluable contributions to medical research that have benefited millions of people across the world,” Van Hollen stated in a news release.
“But we can work to ensure that Americans know her story and the critical impact her life-saving cells have had on global health, our quality of life, and patient rights.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is a prestigious honor bestowed upon individuals whose achievements have profoundly influenced the nation.
By unanimously supporting Lacks’ nomination, the Congressional Black Caucus, and its allies said they aim to celebrate her groundbreaking contributions to medical science and ensure that her legacy endures.
Stacy M. Brown is the NNPA Newswire senior national correspondent.