Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) filed legislation March 15 to posthumously award a Congressional Gold Medal to Henrietta Lacks, a Baltimore County woman whose cells were used for medical research without her consent.

The Congressional Gold Medal is considered to be one of the highest civilian awards in the United States. It’s awarded for distinguished achievements and contributions.

Mfume, who succeeded the late Elijah E. Cummings in Maryland’s 7th District in 2020, said Lacks deserves the award because of how much her cells have helped — and continue to help — society.

“For Ms. Lacks to have gone on to her grave many, many years ago for whatever miracle God put in her body to be able to keep helping us, I think it warrants recognition from the United States Congress,” Mfume said during an interview.

The congressman described shepherding the legislation as a “personal honor,” saying he grew up in Baltimore a few blocks from Lacks, knows several people in the family and that his mother knew Lacks.

Lacks, who lived in Turner Station, was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital for cervical cancer and died of the disease in 1951. Without the 31-year-old mother’s knowledge or consent, doctors took cancer cells during a diagnostic procedure and used them for medical research. Those cells — the first to live outside the body in a glass tube — brought decades of scientific advances.

The resulting HeLa line of cells — or Henrietta Lacks cells — has proved crucial to scores of researchers, including those working on moneymaking medical ventures. Vaccines, cancer treatments and in vitro fertilization are among the many medical techniques derived from her cells.

Lacks’s family went for decades without knowing about the research or receiving any apologies or compensation. Only in recent years has the woman’s contribution been acknowledged and celebrated.

Her story won national attention after Rebecca Skloot wrote a bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which was made into a 2017 HBO movie starring Oprah Winfrey.

Lacks’s case is one of many that contribute to distrust of medical institutions, particularly among Black communities that have been victimized.

Last year, legislation originally championed by Cummings and then taken up by Mfume became law. The Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act requires the federal government to publish a report on government-funded cancer research trials, including the amount of participation by underrepresented populations and describing the barriers to participation.

Lawrence Lacks Sr., Henrietta Lacks’s eldest son, thanked Mfume for his leadership in introducing the latest bill.

“In life, my mother gave to many in our community, and today is a full-circle moment during Women’s History Month to have Henrietta Lacks’ legacy advanced by Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who grew up just blocks away from my family,” he said in a statement.

Victoria Baptiste, Lacks’s great-granddaughter, also applauded Mfume for continuing the work of Cummings, who vowed to help honor Lacks. She also emphasized the importance of the bill being pushed forward during Women’s History Month.

“When her cells were discovered, they took her name out of it, just like they have with other women in history,” she said in an interview. “But now we are getting her name out there. We want people to say her name.”

— Baltimore Sun