Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920. No one knows how she became Henrietta. A midwife named Fannie delivered her in a small shack on a dead-end road overlooking a train depot, where hundreds of freight cars came and went each day. Henrietta shared that house with her parents and eight older siblings until 1924, when her mother, Eliza Lacks Pleasant, died giving birth to her tenth child.
Henrietta's father, Johnny Pleasant, was a squat man who hobbled around on a cane he often hit people with. Johnny didn't have the patience for raising children, so when Eliza died, he took them all back to Clover, Virginia, where his family still farmed the tobacco fields their ancestors had worked as slaves. No one in Clover could take all ten children, so relatives divided them up—one with this cousin, one with that aunt. Henrietta ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks.
Tommy lived in what everyone called the home-house, a four-room wooden cabin that once served as slave quarters, with plank floors, gas lanterns, and water Henrietta hauled up a long hill from the creek. The home-house stood on a hillside where wind whipped through cracks in the walls. The air inside stayed so cool that when relatives died, the family kept their corpses in the front hallway for days so people could visit and pay respects. Then they buried them in the cemetery out back.
Henrietta's grandfather was already raising another grandchild that one of his daughters left behind after delivering him on the home-house floor. That child's name was David Lacks, but everyone called him Day, because in the Lacks country drawl, house sounds like hyse, and David sounds like Day. No one could have guessed Henrietta would spend the rest of her life with Day—first as a cousin growing up in their grandfather's home, then as his wife.
Like most young Lackses, Day didn't finish school: He stopped in the fourth grade because the family needed him to work the tobacco fields. But Henrietta stayed until the sixth grade. During the school year, after taking care of the garden and livestock each morning, she'd walk two miles—past the white school where children threw rocks and taunted her—to the colored school, a three-room wooden farmhouse hidden under tall shade trees.
At nightfall the Lacks cousins built fires with pieces of old shoes to keep the mosquitoes away, and watched the stars from beneath the big oak tree where they'd hung a rope to swing from. They played tag, ring-around-the-rosy, and hopscotch, and danced around the field singing until Grandpa Tommy yelled for everyone to go to bed.
Henrietta and Day had been sharing a bedroom since she was 4 and he was 9, so what happened next didn't surprise anyone: They started having children together. Their son Lawrence was born just months after Henrietta's 14th birthday; his sister, Lucile Elsie Pleasant, came along four years later. They were both born on the floor of the home-house like their father, grandmother, and grandfather before them. People wouldn't use words like epilepsy, mental retardation, or neurosyphilis to describe Elsie's condition until years later. To the folks in Clover, she was just simple. Touched.
Henrietta and Day married alone at their preacher's house on April 10, 1941. She was 20; he was 25. They didn't go on a honeymoon because there was too much work to do, and no money for travel. Henrietta and Day were lucky if they sold enough tobacco each season to feed the family and plant the next crop. So after their wedding, Day went back to gripping the splintered ends of his old wooden plow as Henrietta followed close behind, pushing a homemade wheelbarrow and dropping tobacco seedlings into holes in the freshly turned red dirt.
A few months later, Day moved north to Turner Station, a small black community outside Baltimore where he'd gotten a job working in a shipyard. Henrietta stayed behind to care for the children and the tobacco until Day made enough money for a house and three tickets north. Soon, with a child on each side, Henrietta boarded a coal-fueled train from the small wooden depot at the end of Clover's Main Street. She left the tobacco fields of her youth and the hundred-year-old oak tree that shaded her from the sun on so many hot afternoons. At the age of 21, she stared through the train window at rolling hills and wide-open bodies of water for the first time, heading toward a new life.
Lacks and her husband had three other children: David "Sonny" Jr. (b. 1947), Deborah (1949–2009), and Joseph (b. 1950, later changed name to Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman). Rahman, Lacks' last child, was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital in November 1950, just four and a half months before Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer. At about the same time, and to Lacks' great distress, the couple placed Elsie, who was described by the family as "different", "deaf and dumb" in the Hospital for the Negro Insane, which was later renamed Crownsville Hospital Center. Elsie died there in 1955
On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital because she felt a knot inside her. She had told her cousins about the knot; they assumed correctly that she was pregnant. But, after giving birth to her fifth child, Joseph, Henrietta started bleeding abnormally and profusely. Her local doctor tested her for syphilis, which came back negative, and referred her to Johns Hopkins.
Johns Hopkins was their only choice for a hospital since it was the only one in proximity to them that treated black patients. Howard Jones, her new doctor, examined Henrietta and the lump in her cervix. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. He cut off a small part of the tumor and sent it to the pathology lab. Soon after, Jones learned she had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix Stage 1 (cervical cancer).
Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn in place. After several days in place, the tubes were removed and she was released from Johns Hopkins with instructions to return for X-ray treatments as a follow-up. During her radiation treatments for the tumor, two samples of Henrietta's cervix were removed—a healthy part and a cancerous part—without her permission. The cells from her cervix were given to Dr. George Otto Gey. These cells would eventually become the HeLa immortal cell line, a commonly used cell line in biomedical research.
In significant pain and without improvement, Lacks returned to Hopkins on August 8 for a treatment session, but asked to be admitted. She remained at the hospital until the day of her death.Though she received treatment and blood transfusions, she died of uremic poisoning on October 4, 1951, at the age of thirty-one. A subsequent partial autopsy showed that the cancer had metastasized throughout her entire body
Lacks was buried without a tombstone in a family cemetery in Lackstown, a part of Clover in Halifax County, Virginia. Her exact burial location is not known, although the family believes it is within feet of her mother's gravesite. Lackstown is the name of the land that has been held by the (black) Lacks family since they received it from the (white) Lacks family, who had owned the ancestors of the black Lackses when slavery was legal. Many members of the black Lacks family were also descended from the white Lacks family. For decades, Henrietta Lacks' mother had the only tombstone of the five graves in the family cemetery in Lackstown, and Henrietta's own grave was unmarked.  In 2010, however, Dr. Roland Pattillo of theMorehouse School of Medicine donated a headstone for Lacks after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The headstone, which is shaped like a book, reads:
Henrietta Lacks, August 01, 1920-October 04, 1951.
In loving memory of a phenomenal woman, wife and mother who touched the lives of many.
Here lies Henrietta Lacks (HeLa). Her immortal cells will continue to help mankind forever.
Eternal Love and Admiration, From Your Family