The plight of Black people in North America is defined by a long history involving battles for human rights, fighting against discrimination and incessant struggles for the assertion of Black people as equal members of society. Many of these battles unfortunately continue today, as historic prejudices and stereotypes have yet to be completely eradicated.
In celebration of Black History Month, Xtalks is highlighting Black contributions to science. From inventors to medical treatments to an iconic cell line with a tainted history, Black individuals have, and continue to, contribute to significant advancements in science.
Revolutionizing Leprosy Treatment: Alice Ball
Alice Augusta Ball (1892–1916) was an American chemist who is acclaimed for developing the “Ball Method” to treat leprosy. It became the most effective method to treat the disease and was used for over 20 years up until the 1940s.
Until modern-day antibiotic treatments became available for leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, treatment options were limited in the early 1900s, and the condition was often debilitating and fatal.
Historically, there has been great stigma attached to the disease, particularly with respect to bodily disfigurement and myths about its contagiousness. Leprosy stigma dates back thousands of years, and in societies like ancient Egypt, it was thought to be a curse from god. As a result, the disease became highly stigmatized throughout history, leading leprosy patients into social isolation, abandonment and being shunned from society. Although with a far better understanding of the disease and curative treatment options available today, leprosy stigma still continues to exist in some parts of the world.
Ball was born to a middle-class family in Seattle, Washington. Her father was a lawyer, photographer and also an editor at the Colored Citizen newspaper. Her mother worked as a photographer as well, as did her grandfather, James Ball Sr., who was a famed photographer and one of the first Black Americans to use daguerreotypy, a technique that involves printing of photographs onto metal plates.
It was perhaps her parents’ and grandfather’s love for photography — working with mercury vapors and iodine-sensitized silver plates for printing photos — that may have piqued Ball’s interest in chemistry.
Interestingly, despite being well-to-do members and advocates of the African American community, Ball’s parents are described as “white” on her birth certificate. Some think this may have been done to thwart potential discrimination and racism that their daughter may have had to face in a white society at the time. Despite victories in civil rights for Black people in the 1960s, research shows that even today, people of minority backgrounds still face discrimination in some areas of society, including in hiring processes. In fact, one study showed that when African Americans or people of other minority backgrounds “whitened” their resumes, by concealing racial details such as distinctive African or Asian names, they were twice as likely to be called for an interview.
Ball and her family moved from Seattle to Honolulu in hopes of helping her grandfather’s arthritis with the warm climate. Unfortunately, he died shortly after the move, which led the family to move back to Seattle. Ball went on to study chemistry at the University of Washington, earning a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry, followed by a second degree in pharmacy two years later. Along with her pharmacy instructor William Dell, she published an article titled “Benzoylations in Ether Solution” in the prestigious Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1914. This was a rare achievement for both an African American, and a woman of any racial background at the time.
Ball returned to Hawaii and obtained a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii. She went on to become the university’s first female and African American chemistry professor.
In Hawaii, at the time, people with leprosy were exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai for their “final days,” as it was believed they would die there. The best available treatment for the disease was chaulmoogra oil that was extracted from the seeds of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree. The tree originates from the Indian subcontinent and had been used medicinally since as early as the 1300s.
However, the treatment was not very effective owing to difficulties in its administration. The problem was that the oil was too viscous, or sticky, making its topical application difficult. Injecting it was another option, but because of its thickness, it could not be absorbed and would instead cause clumping under the skin, leading to blisters. Ingesting it was also ineffective because it had a highly unpleasant, pungent taste, leading patients to vomit.
Dr. Harry T. Hollmann was a doctor at the Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii who wanted to find a way to extract the active ingredients of chaulmoogra oil so that it could be effectively administered to patients. He contacted Alice Ball, who was working on her thesis at the time, for assistance with the work.
To help solve the problem, Ball worked out a way to make the oil injectable. She developed a technique to isolate ester compounds from the oil and chemically modify them. The substance retained the oil’s therapeutic properties and could be injected.
Ball unfortunately died a year later at the young age of 24. Although the details of her death remain unclear, it is said she became sick during her research and thought that it may have been due to chlorine exposure and poisoning while teaching in the lab. However, her original death certificate was changed to cite tuberculosis as the cause of death.
Ball could not publish her revolutionary work due to her untimely death. Her work ended up being stolen by Arthur L. Dean, a chemist who later became president of the University of Hawaii. He published the findings without giving Ball credit and named the technique after himself. He also began producing large quantities of the injectable chaulmoogra extract.
Hollman spoke out against the injustice several years after Ball’s death and published a paper in 1922 giving credit to Ball. He rightfully named the injectable oil formulation the “Ball Method.” Despite this, Ball went largely unrecognized and forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Kathryn Takara and Stanley Ali, professors at the University of Hawaii, looked into the archives to find Ball’s research. They highlighted her work and accomplishments, helping to finally confer upon her the credit that she was owed all those years.
Having changed the landscape of leprosy treatment at the time, Ball’s work allowed leprosy patients a chance at life. The therapy not only helped alleviate physical symptoms of the disease, but also helped kickstart the removal of social barriers and stigmas associated with it.
The Peanut Man: George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver (1864–1943) was an American agricultural chemist, agronomist and inventor who is widely known for his contributions to food and plant science, particularly in the area of peanuts. He worked so extensively on the legume that he became known as the “Peanut Man.” He developed hundreds of products using peanuts, as well as sweet potatoes and soybeans. For example, he developed flours and vinegar from sweet potatoes, and also non-food items such as dyes, stains, paints and writing ink from the vegetable.
Throughout his life and career, his interests involved using plant and soil science to help poor farmers learn techniques to enhance soil quality to improve the health of crops and increase yields. His work helped revolutionize farming in the US South at the time.
Carver was born into slavery just a year before its abolishment. About nine years before his birth, Carver’s mother had been bought by a slave owner named Moses Carver at the age of nine. He was apparently opposed to slavery but made the purchase to get help for his farm.
Shortly after Carver was born, he, his mother and his sister were kidnapped from the Carver farm in Diamond, Missouri by slave raiders who commonly roamed through the state during the period of the Civil War. The family was sold in Kentucky and although Moses Carver hired a neighbor to help get them back, he was only able to retrieve George in exchange for one of Moses’ best horses.
Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised George and his brother James as their own and taught the children to read and write.
While James took an interest in working the fields, George was frail and often sick as a child, preventing him from doing any laborious work. Instead, Susan taught him how to cook, mend, embroider, garden and prepare herbal medicines.
Growing up on the farm, Carver became a plant enthusiast at a young age, experimenting with natural pesticides, fungicides and soil conditioners. He even became known as the “the plant doctor” among local farmers as he had the ability to improve the health of their fields, orchards and gardens.
Carver left home at the age of 11 for educational pursuits. Although accepted at Highland University in Highland, Kansas, he was denied entry when he arrived because of his race. He eventually went on to study at Iowa State University, becoming the first Black student at the school and the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in the country.
During his undergraduate studies, some of his professors became impressed with Carver’s research on fungal infections of soybean plants, asking him to continue his work and pursue graduate studies. He worked with renowned fungal scientist (mycologist) L.H. Pammel at the Iowa State Experimental Station, continuing his research on plant diseases. He received his Master of Agricultural degree in 1896.
Carver went on to teach and do research at Tuskegee University in Alabama, staying there for the rest of his career. Despite having several offers, he chose to join Tuskegee on an offer from Booker T. Washington. To preserve an all-Black faculty at the agricultural school that he had founded at the university, Washington convinced the university to hire Carver to head it. Carver went on to add Washington’s last name to his own.
Carver’s biggest successes came from peanuts, as he developed more than 300 food, industrial and commercial products from the nut, including milk, cooking and salad oils, Worcestershire sauce, paper, cosmetics, soaps and wood stains. He also experimented with peanut-based medicines, such as antiseptics, laxatives and goiter medications. Many of these discoveries were suggestions or curiosities and were experimental in nature or simply a proof-of-concept; as such, they did not find widespread use.
Nevertheless, Carver became an expert in peanut biology. He appeared before the Ways and Means Committee of the US House of Representatives in 1921 on behalf of the peanut industry, which was looking to secure tariff protection. Despite his testimony getting off to a rough start, Carver went on to describe the wide range of products that could be made from peanuts. He received a standing ovation for his talk and also convinced the committee to approve a high protected tariff for peanuts. It is this speech that gave him the nickname, the Peanut Man.
Carver can be credited with putting peanuts on the map in the US, because when he first arrived at Tuskegee to work on the legume, it was not a recognized crop in the US. However, over the next several decades, it became one of the six leading crops in the country (by around 1940), and the second cash crop in the South, after cotton. Both peanuts and sweet potatoes were slowly incorporated into Southern cooking, and today, the peanut in particular is ubiquitous in the American diet.
Carver gained successes and trust both in the laboratory, on the farm and within the community. He taught poor farmers various techniques to improve plant health and yields. For example, he suggested feeding hogs acorns instead of commercial feed, and using swamp muck instead of conventional fertilizers to enrich soils.
He is also known for coming up with the concept of crop rotation through his work on soil chemistry. He noticed that soils were becoming depleted after years of cotton growth, leading to low yields. His solution was to grow nitrogen-fixing plants like peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes to rescue and restore the soil, leading to significant increases in cotton yield when the soil was converted back to grow cotton plants after the restoration.
He also initiated grassroots efforts to help farmers, inventing the Jessup wagon, a horse-drawn wagon of sorts that was used as a mobile classroom and laboratory which he used to teach and conduct experiments on soil chemistry.
Carver’s contributions to plant science through the invention of innovative plant-based products, and innovations in farming to help impoverished Black farmers, led his home to be named a national monument after his death — a historical first for an African American in the US.
Fundamentals in Cancer Research: Henrietta Lacks and HeLa Cells
The HeLa cell line is perhaps the most well-known, well-studied and among the most commonly used cell lines in medical research, having facilitated many medical breakthroughs. Although a cancer cell line, it is used in many different biomedical research areas owing to the cells’ ability to rapidly proliferate.
Having become a staple in research labs, HeLa cells have been in use for over 60 years, having been used in the development of the first live polio vaccine, drugs for treating herpes, Parkinson’s and leukemia, as well as in AIDS research and determining the long-term effects of radiation.
In 1955, HeLa cells became the first human cells to have been successfully cloned. Since then, the cells have been used to test sensitivity to various products ranging from glue to cosmetics. So far, there are nearly 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.
The cell line was sourced from cervical cancer cells from a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. Lacks came to inadvertently contribute to scientific research and medical discovery through her revolutionary cells, while spurring controversy over the important issues of consent and ownership, under the backdrop of race issues at the time. The controversy continues over profits, privacy of genetic information extracted from the cells and racial inequities in access to research and healthcare.
The HeLa cell line was the world’s first immortalized human cell line. It was derived from the cells of Lacks, a poor African American woman who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Lacks died the same year of her diagnosis, at the age of 31, with a partial autopsy later revealing that her cancer had metastasized.
Cells were taken from a biopsy of the tumor that had been found on Lacks’ cervix. The cells were given to cell biologist Dr. George Otto Gey, who cultured the cells and found that they had the ability to extensively and almost infinitely divide, unlike most cells retrieved from human tissue. This unique intrinsic immortality led him to create the HeLa cell line from the cells.
The cell line was named after the first two initials of Lacks’ first and last name, to help preserve anonymity. However, rules around maintaining patient privacy were lax at the time, and Gey had initially used different pseudonyms, including Helen Lane and Helen Larson, in naming the cells. He did this to throw off some people from the press who had almost found Lacks’ family members. The real name wasn’t let out until the 1970s.
The cells were patented by researchers and have generated millions, if not billions, of dollars in revenue since being commercialized. Johns Hopkins released a statement saying that they do not have patent rights over the cells.
Lacks’ story made news headlines after a book was published in 2010 called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in which author Rebecca Skloot outlined the histories of both the cell line and the Lacks family. A television film was also subsequently made by HBO based on the book, featuring Oprah as Henrietta Lacks.
Lacks was born as Loretta Pleasant in Raonoke, Virginia but grew up in a rural town called Clover in the state after her father moved the family there following her mother’s death when she was four years old. Along with most members of her family, Lacks worked on a tobacco farm beginning at an early age. She married her cousin David (‘Day’) Lacks and together, they had five children, including a daughter who had disabilities.
Prior to finding out about her fifth pregnancy, Lacks complained of feeling a “knot” in her womb and went to Johns Hopkins, the only hospital in the area that treated Black patients, to get checked out. After the birth of the child, she had a severe hemorrhage. Treating gynaecologist and IVF specialist Dr. Howard F. Jones took a biopsy of a mass found on Lacks’ cervix and sent it for laboratory testing. It was found that Lacks’ had a malignant epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, which was later discovered to have been an adenocarcinoma. The misdiagnosis was common at the time, and treatment would not have been different.
Lacks was treated with radium tube inserts and then with X-rays during follow-ups. Apart from a cousin she was close to, Lacks did not reveal her illness to her family even while being treated. It is during treatment that samples were taken from Lacks’ cervix without knowledge or permission. One sample was taken from the cancerous tissue and one from healthy tissue, which Dr. Gey ended up taking and turning into a cell line due to their rapid rate of profliferation. At the time, permission was typically not required nor requested from patients over collection of samples.
During a routine treatment session, Lacks asked to be admitted due to severe, continuous abdominal pain. She was given blood transfusions and remained at the hospital until her death on October 4, 1951.
After her death, Lacks’ family remained unaware that her cells were being used in labs around the world and fueling groundbreaking scientific discoveries. It wasn’t until the early 1970s when large numbers of other cell lines were found to be contaminated with HeLa in some labs that an investigation was launched. As a result, members of Henrietta Lacks’ family were contacted for blood samples to genetically trace and identify the cells.
Skloot described in an interview how Lacks’ husband received a phone call from a postdoc from a lab one day regarding the situation. Given that her husband only had a third-grade education and didn’t know what a cell was, this is how he understood the call: “We’ve got your wife. She’s alive in a laboratory. We’ve been doing research on her for the last 25 years. And now we have to test your kids to see if they have cancer.”
This is obviously not what the researcher said, but without being provided the context of what the cells were and how they had been taken from Lacks without her consent, the family simply didn’t understand. Skloot said, “from that point on, the family got sucked into this world of research they didn’t understand, and the cells, in a sense, took over their lives.”
Other family members were also shocked and confused when they started receiving such phone calls. Up until then, they had not discussed Lacks’ illness or death. Lacks’ daughter Deborah was only four when her mother passed away. She wanted to learn more about her mom and what she was like.
On the other hand, her brothers became upset upon learning that the cells were being sold and as her family, they were not getting any of the money from it. Having lived in poverty their entire lives and not having good health insurance, they were not benefiting from the medical research and treatments that the cells were enabling, nor were they getting a share of the revenue being generated from sales of the cells around the world, which helped spur a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Given that at the time, consent was not required to use cells obtained from Lacks, and consistent with modern standards, the family was not compensated for retrieval or use of the cells.
However, when a strain of HeLa cells was sequenced and researchers published its genome in 2013, Skloot informed the Lacks family about this. The family took issue with their genetic information being publicly available. Jeri Lacks Whye, a grandchild of Henrietta Lacks, said in an article in The New York Times, “the biggest concern was privacy — what information was actually going to be out there about our grandmother, and what information they can obtain from her sequencing that will tell them about her children and grandchildren and going down the line.”
In the same year, another group submitted the genome of a different HeLa cell line strain for publication, with funding for the research having come from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In August 2013, the NIH came to an agreement with the family to give them some control over access to the DNA sequences of the two cell lines, along with putting the family in the acknowledgments sections in the papers. Lacks’ daughter Deborah and son Lawrence were also given provision to join an advisory committee that makes decisions on regulating access to the genetic data.
Author Rebecca Skloot set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation in honor of Lacks and her family. The foundation helps raise awareness over the use of biological samples and “historic research conducted on individuals — particularly within minority communities — without their knowledge or consent.”
With disparities in access to healthcare, research discoveries made through the use of samples from people of minority backgrounds do not always go back to benefit them or their families. This is an issue that the foundation attempts to address. The foundation has raised money to help members of the Lacks family receive an education and provide general assistance.
The very cells that killed Lacks have helped save millions of lives through the medical breakthroughs that have been made possible by them. As such, the legacy of Henrietta Lacks continues to live on through the HeLa cell line. The hope is that the discoveries will benefit all of humankind without any racial and class barriers.
Despite battling discrimination, segregation and exploitation, Black people have, and continue to make significant contributions to science. Today, names like that of American astrophysicist and planetary scientist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, and astronaut and physician Dr. Mae C. Jemison, are widely known, mainstream names with star power.
And at the forefront of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine development has been Black immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. Dr. Corbett was one of the scientists at the US NIH who helped lead development of the Moderna/NIH mRNA-based vaccine. She is also involved in addressing vaccine hesitancy and has been communicating the science behind COVID-19 among communities of color.
Black scientists continue to rise and lead in scientific fields all around world, and many of them are also working to help empower their communities along the way.