Two Unsung Heroes of Medical Research

Ercilia Montemayor Ercilia Cepeda Montemayor Observations


History is not only made by the winners, it centers strongly on the “great man” theory, in which credit for significant developments and movements is given to whoever happens to be a leader at the time. Although presidents and generals do have world-altering impact on history, there are others who deserve to be known to modern people for the way they changed the world. Here are some of history’s unsung heroes.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks has saved thousands of lives without ever knowing it. Lacks was an African-American sharecropper who once migrated from Virginia’s tobacco farms to a poor neighborhood in Baltimore. This mother of five died tragically from cervical cancer at just age 31. However, cells taken from Lacks wound up being at the forefront of medical research in the 20th century. Lacks’ cells created the HeLa immortal line – which does not die after cell divisions – which led to some of the biggest breakthroughs in modern medicine. Lacks never consented to the tumor tissue taken from her, nor was she ever aware of it. However, the HeLa cell was used to create the first polio vaccine and played a seminal role in AIDS research. Scientists have grown more than 20 tons of these life-changing cells.

Author Rebecca Skloot wrote a best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which tracks Lacks’ life story and the HeLa’s history as a medical technology. The story focuses on Lacks’ youngest daughter, Deborah, who never knew her mother. Deborah always wanted to be a scientist. The book expertly explores Henrietta’s life and the ethical implications of medical research undertaken on society’s most vulnerable people.

Rosalind Franklin

Everyone knows that Watson & Crick are credited with discovering DNA. However, few people realize that much of the research the team relied upon in their scientific breakthrough came from Rosalind Franklin. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix model of DNA in 1962, four years after Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 37. However, as years have passed, Franklin’s role in the research has become increasingly clear. Franklin and Wilkins met in the lab while running separate DNA research projects. When Wilkins left town for several months he put her in charge of the projects. Upon his return, he mistakenly remembered her only as an assistant. This allowed Wilkins to take credit for all of Franklin’s research as his own. The two were peers, however.

The gender dynamics of the time essentially prevented Franklin from being credited with discovering DNA strands. Her X-ray photographs of DNA were described as “the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” Crick and Watson beat her to publication on the DNA discovery only due to the infighting between her and Wilkins. Wilkins even showed Watson one of the crystallographic portraits of DNA taken by Franklin. When Watson saw the picture, the solution of DNA became apparent to him. He immediately published his article in the journal Nature. Although Franklin’s work appeared in the same journal issue, it was merely as a supplement.

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