U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

August 5, 2023

Henrietta Lacks

Dear Fellow Marylanders,

Temperatures are high, but fall is right around the corner. With it comes a renewed focus on public health. Students are getting vaccinated before they head back to the classroom, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again and it is time to start preparing for an annual flu shot.

Advances in medicine that have given us these vaccines and other treatments typically are attributed to scientists like Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie. But there is one Marylander who has also helped make incredible advances in vaccines and medical research and doesn’t get enough credit. That is Henrietta Lacks. This week, we celebrated what would have been her 103rd birthday and we took steps to honor her contribution to modern medicine.

Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who lived in Baltimore, died of cervical cancer in 1951. During her cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, doctors took samples of her tumor without her or her family’s knowledge. From this, the HeLa cell line was created. When most cells would die, HeLa cells would continue to divide creating generations of cells. HeLa cells, the first immortal line of human cells, have led to some of medicine’s most important breakthroughs, including the development of the polio and COVID-19 vaccines, along with treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease and new bioethical standards including informed consent.  

Lacks’ story highlights a long history of unconsented experimentation on and myths about Black bodies that have led to health disparities and mistrust in the health system. For example, the Black maternal mortality rate is nearly three times the rate for white women, Black Americans are chronically undertreated for pain, died from COVID-19 at higher rates and overall, receive a lower standard of health care. In Congress, we’ve been championing efforts to address race-based health disparities while recognizing the contribution of minorities like Henrietta Lacks who are often overlooked in history.

In 2010, I authored the provision in the Affordable Care Act that elevated the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD) to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). This was an important change that has brought more attention and resources to minority health and health disparities, moving us in the right direction toward understanding and mitigating these issues.

I continue to lead an annual bipartisan resolution to promote minority health awareness and to bring attention to the discrepancies in health care faced by minority populations including American Indians, Alaska Natives, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Hawaiians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. These groups have historically suffered from high rates of chronic disease and inadequate access to health care.

I recently joined my colleagues in the Senate to reintroduce a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. The resolution acknowledges the history of racism and discrimination within health care and the systemic barriers that people of color continue to face when seeking care. The resolution also highlights the effects of systemic racism on the health and wellness of communities of color and encourages concrete action to address health disparities and inequity across all sectors in society. Maryland and other state legislatures across the country have been leading the way with legislation recognizing racism’s central role in creating a public health crisis in these vulnerable communities. It’s time for the federal government to follow their lead to begin closing these health gaps and expand health equity across the nation.

U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen and I also announced the introduction of a bill to posthumously award to Henrietta Lacks the Congressional Gold Medal – Congress’ most prestigious award– in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to medicine. A companion bill is being led by Congressman Kweisi Mfume in the House. This comes just two years after Team Maryland helped pass the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act, which honors the life and legacy of Henrietta Lacks and examines access to government-funded cancer clinical trials for traditionally underrepresented groups. Honoring Henrietta Lacks has been an ongoing effort started by the late Congressman Elijah Cummings. These initiatives help us tell a more complete, accurate story while creating programs that specifically address health disparities.

Henrietta Lacks is responsible for saving countless lives. Her cells have informed transformational research and advancements in science and medicine and continue to benefit millions across the world. She is part of Maryland history and American history. Henrietta never got to see her impact on the world. Let’s make sure history never forgets.


Ben Cardin