Press Release

July 25, 2023
Cardin, Van Hollen Introduce Legislation to Honor the Late Henrietta Lacks with Congressional Gold Medal

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (both D-Md.) today announced the introduction of a bill to posthumously award to Henrietta Lacks the Congressional Gold Medal – Congress’ most prestigious award of appreciation – in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to medicine. 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.

“Henrietta Lacks’ cells have informed transformational research and advancements in science and medicine. While these cells continue to benefit millions across the world, they were taken without the consent or knowledge of Ms. Lacks’ and her family,” said Senator Cardin. “The Henrietta Lacks Congressional Gold Medal Act will ensure that her contributions are recognized and honored for generations to come.”

“Henrietta Lacks changed the course of modern medicine. The cancer cells in her body helped unlock breakthrough medical treatments that are still saving lives to this day. It is long past time that we recognize her life-saving contributions to the world by awarding her Congress’ highest expression of appreciation,” said Senator Van Hollen.

“The Lacks Family is honored that such a prestigious award such as the Congressional Gold Medal would be awarded to our loved one, Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta’s contributions not only to the United States, but, more importantly, to the world has helped save countless lives and create vaccines to improve our quality of life. Henrietta Lacks is well deserving of this medal and her family takes great pride in celebrating and continuing her legacy,” the Lacks family said in a joint statement.

In the U.S. House, Congressman Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) has introduced the companion legislation. This push to honor the legacy of Henrietta Lacks comes ahead of her birthday on August 1, and follows the lawmakers’ successful efforts in the 116th Congress to pass the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act, which President Biden signed into law in January 2021. 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.