WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin (both D-Md.) today announced the introduction of a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to Henrietta Lacks in recognition of her extraordinary life and legacy.
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, and from this the HeLa cell line was created – the first immortal line of human cells. Without her or her family’s knowledge, her cells were used in medical research and helped lead to some of medicine’s most important breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine, along with treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease.
“Millions of people have benefited from the medical advances and protections derived from Henrietta Lacks’ cells. I’m proud to help lead this effort with Senator Van Hollen to award the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of the tremendous impact of her life and legacy,” said Senator Cardin. “With this honor, we ensure that Henrietta Lacks’ life-saving contributions will forever be enshrined in American history.”
“The debt of gratitude we owe Henrietta Lacks can never be fully repaid for her invaluable contributions to medical research that have benefitted millions of people across the world. 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 patients’ rights,” said Senator Van Hollen. “I’m honored to help lead the charge to award Mrs. Lacks a Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest expression of appreciation, to properly recognize her contributions to the world and highlight her life’s incredible story.”
“We thank Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin for their leadership in advancing the effort to award a Congressional Gold Medal to my mother, Henrietta Lacks, as the world commemorates 70 years since her HeLa cells changed modern medicine,” said Lawrence Lacks, Sr., Henrietta Lacks’ eldest son. “Together, we educate communities on her remarkable legacy through our family-led HELA100: The Henrietta Lacks Initiative. We applaud our Senators for their commitment to ensuring Henrietta Lacks’ contributions are rightfully recognized – right here at home – with the highest congressional honor in the United States.”
In the U.S. House, Congressman Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) has introduced the companion legislation. This push to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks follows the lawmakers’ successful efforts to pass the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act, which President Biden signed into law in January. The law directs the Government Accountability Office to study and publish a report regarding barriers to participation in federally funded cancer clinical trials by populations that have been traditionally underrepresented in such trials. Senators Van Hollen and Cardin initially introduced this legislation alongside the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, but after his passing it was sponsored in the House by Representative Kweisi Mfume. It was also cosponsored by Congressmen Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, and David Trone.