Henrietta Lacks Receives Honorary Degree

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman with cervical cancer. Doctors took her cells without her knowledge and used them for research. And they've been used in tens of thousands of research studies. Now nearly 60 years after her death, Morgan State University in Baltimore has awarded her an honorary degree. Michele Norris and Robert Siegel have more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

If you've sat through any college graduation ceremonies, you've no doubt witnessed the awarding of many honorary degrees.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Few of this year's honorees have had as much of an impact on our health as one woman recognized this weekend at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Her name was Henrietta Lacks.

SIEGEL: And she received the honorary degree posthumously. At commencement, Dr. Burney Hollis, a former dean at Morgan State, described her contributions.

Dr. BURNEY HOLLIS: She has attained a level and kind of immortality unreached by any other person in human history.

NORRIS: Lacks was a poor African-American woman with cervical cancer. Her story was told in an award-winning book published last year called "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." She died in 1951, but her cells lived on. A doctor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore took some of them and created a cell line.

Dr. HOLLIS: Though she never knew of her largesse and never consented to being a laboratory experiment, her cancer cells became the foundation for advancements in the treatment of mankind's most challenging forms of human affliction and suffering.

SIEGEL: Her cells were used for studies on the polio vaccine, on AIDS, on in vitro fertilization and on cancer. Her family didn't know. When they found out, they were angry. Some resented the fact that no benefit had come their way.

NORRIS: But at the Morgan State commencement, Henrietta Lacks' son, David "Sonny" Lacks Jr., became emotional as he received the degree for his mother.

Mr. DAVID "SONNY" LACKS JR.: Excuse me again. I wait to get to be an old man to get emotional at my old age, but thank you for this honorary degree and thanks, everyone, for having me. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And so the late Henrietta Lacks, a poor uneducated farmer, now has a doctorate of public service.

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