“What more can you ask to be? . . . . born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power."
Maria Mitchell – America’s first female astronomy professor
August 1 was the 101st birthday of Henrietta Lacks. When Henrietta was four years old, her Mother died giving birth to her tenth child. Henrietta’s father, understandably unable to take care of his ten children without his wife, distributed the children among relatives.
Henrietta went to stay with her maternal grandmother in a two-story log cabin that had been the slave quarters on the plantation owned by Henrietta's white great-grandfather and great-uncle. She dropped out of school in the 6th grade to help support the family’s tobacco farm.
Henrietta married, gave birth to her first child at the age of fourteen, and moved with her husband to the Baltimore area. She also bore a daughter who was cognitively disabled, ultimately institutionalized and who died at the age of fifteen.
Henrietta died from metastasized uterine cancer at the age of 31 in 1951.
Hentrietta Lacks was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, awarded a posthumous honorary doctorate in public service from Morgan State University and her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, among many other recognitions.
She knew none of these recognitions in her short, sad life.
Perhaps you know of Henrietta’s breathtaking, and unwitting, contribution to science. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/When Henrietta was hospitalized for cancer treatment the doctor performed a biopsy of her tissue. Her cells then became the first “immortalized” cell line (a cell line which reproduces indefinitely) and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. Henrietta’s cells were used to develop the polio vaccine and they have been used in cancer and aids research. There are almost 11,000 patents involving Henrietta’s cells and her cell line continues to be used today. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henrietta_Lacks
August 1 was also the birthday of Maria Mitchell – a woman few of us know of but who was a woman of many firsts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria Mitchell
As I read about these two women on August 1, 2021 I was struck by their contributions to the future and how Henrietta Lacks never knew of her contribution. What were her thoughts as she lay dying in a hospital bed - a young woman knowing she would not live to see her children reach adulthood? Did she wish she could have contributed more to the world, not knowing what stupendous benefit she would bestow upon it simply through a biopsy of her tissue which would be shared without her consent?
At the YMCA in downtown Grand Rapids, MI there is a grand piano sitting in the three-story entrance atrium. (How many cities boast a grand piano at a gym which serves the entire community? What a special place!) At least twice, sometimes three times a month, a man who is obviously a classically trained pianist shows up and fills the atrium with Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Mozart and other musical treasures. I always pause to listen and watch – he is exquisite in his skill. Several times I have thanked him for giving us such a beautiful moment in the midst of our day-to-day rush and ho hum. Each time I have been met with a blank stare – no words, not even a facial acknowledgment of my words or presence. I suspect he is unable to interface with the world in the way most of us do.
This man played one of my most favorite passages on August 2, when Henrietta Lacks and Maria Mitchell were fresh in my mind.
A few days later, I was in the U.S. Post Office in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. Not my favorite place to go and certainly not a place I thought I would be given a gift. While I waited at the window for the clerk to perform the necessary postal tasks, a man stepped up to the window next to me. It was clear this man was worn down by life. It had not been easy on him. Yet, when the clerk began asking him questions, he finished every single sentence, with a “Yes ma’am” or “No ma’am.” These two words were uttered with a tone of respect for strangers that I have not heard in many decades.
What a gift it was to see and hear genuine respect given to a complete stranger. In that moment I realized just how far our civil discourse has declined, how extreme our depersonalization of others has become and how I felt a sense of disappointment in my self that I had slipped from the standards of my own upbringing. I am blessed with a few friends and relatives who regularly bestow this gift of respect upon others. They make me want to be more like them.
Every one of us has a special gift to bring to the world. Even simply the tone and words we use to address others. You may not be aware of the gifts you bring. But have no doubt, you are a gift. As Maria Mitchell said: “. . . if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power."