Leadership is Influence…John Maxwell (and probably a few dozen other people) said that. Influence is one of those things that can be both intentional and also completely unintentional. If you are ruling a kingdom or holding a seat in office, you know that your leadership and status can exact influence over others. But there are also those leaders who influence quietly or in less obvious ways to the majority of society. Leaders (and also some followers who haphazardly become leaders) who, though not loud or boisterous, flashy or well-bred, find themselves in a place of influence over the annals of history. Or even those who become leaders and don’t even know it.
Since the day I first heard the name Henrietta Lacks I was drawn in and instantly enamored with her. At one time in life I thought I would be a scientist, held up in a lab for days on end working on this or that. In the world of science, 4 letters are more well known than almost any other outside of the periodic table: HeLa. These cells have found their way into every corner of medical research since they were introduced to the world in the 1950s. They’ve helped test polio vaccines and study hemophilia and Parkinson’s. They’ve given oncologists better understanding of cancer and been part of cloning and in vitro fertilization work. These cells (though no longer) were the first immortal cell lines that could not only quickly grow in culture but were adaptable. What many people did not know before the early 2000s was that one woman was to thank for these incredibly important cells… Henrietta Lacks. Born in a time when research was whatever someone wanted it to be and patients especially women were not consulted or even thought of to consult on matters such as research participation, Henrietta Lacks found herself ill in the halls of Johns Hopkins. Treated with radium tubes after a biopsy revealed carcinoma, Lacks would eventually succumb to her disease and died later the same year she was diagnosed. This doesn’t sound like a big medical case or something to be still talking about decades later. But the cells that were taken as part of the biopsy from Henrietta in 1951 are still alive. In labs around the world these cells have continued to grow and split giving the field of science one of its best held gifts and they have influenced medicine as we currently know it. Henrietta never knew what became of her cells, and in truth, her own family had no idea until a journalist decided to do some digging and revealed the story.
Here is a woman who worked as a tobacco farmer with little education, raised a family and was taken from her children far too soon, influencing the modern world of medicine so much so that if you walked into almost any lab right now you could find some of her cells. Though the circumstances surrounding the collection and usage of the cells are steeped in ethical wrongdoing, I could never help but wonder what Henrietta would say to all the great accomplishments she has been a part of. To know she’s gone to the moon and traveled to globe. That her initials “HeLa” are in thousands of published medical works and projects. That most of what we know today about cancer and AIDS, Parkinson’s and hemophilia is directly because of her. Influence, it’s not just loud and shouted over a megaphone, sometimes its small and fits inside a test tube that impacts the world.