The eldest son of Henrietta Lacks recently said he would file a lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University over the use of his mother’s cells. The cells from Lacks, who died in 1951, have long been used by scientist for research purposes because of their unique properties and are known globally as the HeLa cells. This article discusses how the HeLa cells were critical to the development of Dr. Jonas Salk’s anti-polio serum.

Tuskegee research aided test
• Institute was main source of HeLa cells
• Dr. Brown headed work in Alabama

April 23, 1955

TUSKEGEE INSTITUTE, Ala. (ANP)-Had it not been for the work of some 25 Tuskegee scientists and researchers, 30 million American children scheduled to receive Salk polio vaccine shots in the coming weeks might still be waiting to know the drug’s effectiveness.

25 Scientists

The work of the Carver Institute researchers in developing cultures for testing the drug’s effectiveness proved to be an important factor in having the results of last year’s test ready before the annual summer polio season, which year in and year out maims and kills American children and adults.

Tuskegee’s George Washington Carver Foundation was the central source of HeLa cells, which were essential in evaluating the effectiveness of the new anti-polio serum.

It was even more effective in preventing nearly almost fatal bulbar polio.


THE ROLE THE Tuskegee scientists, led by Dr. Russell Brown, played was made public shortly after Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. of the University of Michigan, who analyzed the results of the test, released his findings.

The HeLa cells were first grown by a Johns Hopkins University scientist, and later two University of Minnesota scientists discovered that the cells could be used to evaluate the polio serums.

Dr. Brown went to Minnesota and along with the other two scientists, devised a scheme whereby large quantities of the cells could be grown and then shipped to the 27 laboratories throughout the country who did the actual testing.

Brown and other hardworking Tuskegee scientists then set about turning out the cells essential to knowing whether or not discovery was “monumental” or a dud.


HELA CELLS are living cancer cells–all descendants of cells from a cancer which killed a Baltimore woman in 1951. Each week during the testing period, Tuskegee sent about 20,000 tubes of the cells to the testing laboratories.

25 ScientistsII

The cells were grown in a long line of incubators, measured into culture tubes and shipped by air in special packaging designed to maintain correct growth temperature for 96 hours.

The testing procedure consists of taking the live HeLa cells and adding some polio virus, in addition to a small sample of blood from one of 440,000 children who participated in the historical test.

(Actually, 1,826,000 children participated in the test but blood samples were taken 440,000).

If there are enough antibodies (germ fighters in a loose sense) in a child’s blood as a result of the serum, these antibodies prevent the virus from killing the cells.

In theory, the test was as simple as two plus two.

IN REALITY, its difficulties reached enormous proportions making necessary thousands of HeLa cell cultures. Many times the test had to be repeated because a single particle of dust rendered an entire culture useless.

The tests involved three sets of blood samples, one before vaccination with the serum, one shortly after vaccination and one after the full season.

As a result, some two million culture tubes were used and a million were HeLa cells–more than half of which were grown at Tuskegee.

The work of the Tuskegee scientists was a dramatic illustration of the importance of teamwork in scientific discovery. Each phase of the work was interconnected like a chain, in which no link could be weak.


IT TOOK DR. SALK to develop the vaccine, yet he depended upon the work of other scientists whose knowledge he used in reaching the final product.

The test showed that only 71 of the 440,000 vaccinated children were paralyzed by polio, though 445 unvaccinated children were paralyzed.

Only 113 cases of proved polio were discovered among the vaccinated children, many recovered with no damage.

Most dramatic find was the fact that not one vaccinated child died of polio while 35 were killed by the disease among the 1,400,000 children not vaccinated.

Heading the Tuskegee phase of the project, along with Dr. Brown, was Mrs. Norma Guillard, who served as the tissue culture supervisor.

The two headed the staff of some 20 tissue culture technicians and laboratory helpers. Some technical assistance was also given by Dr. James H. M. Henderson.

{Transcribed by J.K. Schmid}