Episode 13

Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cell - a Historic Real Life Superhero

Henrietta Lacks is the closest thing this world has ever had to a superhero. Her cells are so unique that they have been used in biomedical research ever since her fateful visit to her doctors in 1951. It is because of her that the world has things like the Polio Vaccine, COVID Vaccine, In vitro fertilization, and so many more medical wonders.

I was honored to visit her home town of Clover, Virginia as well as visit her gravesite.

Video: Henrieta Lacks

***learn more at HELA100.org***

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Transcript
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greetings and welcome to the talk with

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History Podcast I am your host Scott

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here with my wife and historian Jen

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hello on this podcast we talk about

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most of the world if not all of it has

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been affected by the woman we are going

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to talk about today

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she's from a small town in Virginia and

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before she passed away

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she had no idea what kind of impact she

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would have on modern day medicine but it

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is because of an African-American woman

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born into poverty and working a farm

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with family A Woman by the name of

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Henrietta Lacks that we have to thank

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for so many medical Miracles so Jen why

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don't you tell us about who we're

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talking about today

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well you mentioned her name Henrietta

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Lacks yeah and

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this was an amazing story to do for many

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reasons but

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I stumbled upon this story when HBO did

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a movie about a book called The Immortal

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Life of Henrietta Lacks and the book

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came out in 2010 and the movie was made

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with Oprah Winfrey playing Henrietta

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lacks's daughter

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that's right and it went through the

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whole story of the family pretty much

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discovering that their mother's cell

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line was responsible for so much medical

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research impact right and what that

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meant for them and just kind of like

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past traumas that they had had in their

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life plus the trauma of the ethics of

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the whole situation yeah that her mother

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their mother never knew they never

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really even knew so why don't you for

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for The Listener who's never heard of

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Henrietta Lacks and why don't you talk

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about kind of what what that story was

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because really

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first off to set the stage you tell me

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about Henry Henrietta Lacks right

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because we do talk about a little bit of

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the production side of things and I'm

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like who the heck is this you're like oh

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don't worry it's like she's buried in

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her hometown is like in the middle of

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Virginia three hours away I was like

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sure let's do this let's drive three

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hours away so that's kind of like that's

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kind of where I was going with that is

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watching that movie and then after we I

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think I watched that movie while we were

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in Pennsylvania okay and then we moved

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here and I remembered she was from

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Virginia and I wanted to find out more

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about her and I looked her up and she's

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from Clover Virginia yeah

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before she moves to Baltimore Maryland

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that's she grew up in Clover Virginia

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she wasn't born there she was born in

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Roanoke oh okay and they actually just

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demolished the house before she was born

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where she was brought she was brought

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home too okay and she might have been

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born in the house where I think she was

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brought home to that house and they

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actually people tried to save it it was

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very old and yeah dilapidated but they

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tried to to save it and they couldn't

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save it but

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living here in Virginia now looking up

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Clover Virginia and I had said to you

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let's go there and make a video about

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her and her life and her impact and yeah

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we drove out three hours to Clover so

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what was what's the big draw like what

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is her why don't you tell listeners what

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her Legacy is because it's when I

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learned about it I was like oh my God so

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what's very interesting about Henry

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lacks when you say what is the big draw

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it's

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most people don't know the big drug I

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had I had zero she has a historic marker

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but no one knew where her grave was and

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we'll talk about that some more she

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should be more well known than she is

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and that's why that's what her family

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wants to know yes you know like her her

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family wants people to know more about

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her so let me give you kind of a

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background in the story of Henrietta

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Lacks

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lack's town is an ancestral Farm tobacco

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area in uh for the lacks family and

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Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta

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Pleasant August 1st 1920 like I said in

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Roanoke Virginia and she was born to

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Eliza Pleasant and John Pleasant

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her name changed sometime in her younger

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years to Henrietta and she got the

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nickname Henny

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in 1924 when she was four her mother

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dies giving birth to her 10th child

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and her father is unable to care for all

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the children alone so he moves the

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family back to Clover Virginia where

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they're from they're both from there

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okay so that's where they have extended

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family right and he moves back there to

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because they have fiesta he has to

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distribute his children yeah amongst his

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family amongst his family to take care

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of them because he can't do that yeah

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what the ratio of one to ten for kids

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that's I don't know if that's possible

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sure and he has to work I'm sure yeah so

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yeah so he has to go with his family

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right and Henrietta ended up with her

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mother's grandfather Thomas

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um Thomas Henry lacks and it's a

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two-story Log Cabin that was once a

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slave Quarters on a plantation that had

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been owned by henrietta's white

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great-grandfather so you can unpack that

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and his last name was lacks yeah so as

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you can yeah you don't really connect

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the dots for the viewers on the video

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you don't tell them like uh this is what

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happened you just say like well his last

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name was lacks and he was her great

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grandfather yes

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um he was her great grandfather so

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as most enslaved when they are freed

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sometimes took their master's last name

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oh okay in this instance I would say

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they the last name was

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more relational sure it was a little bit

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more of both right yes yeah and that

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also is not rare with enslaved

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situations sometimes so Henrietta Lacks

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is an example of that

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and so she grows up on this tobacco farm

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now if you watch the video we stand in

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the tobacco farm area what we believe is

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might have been theirs but it was it was

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definitely tobacco farm we don't we

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weren't sure if it was theirs but it was

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that was an Old Farm I'm pretty sure it

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took us out there the mark some yeah

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some random GPS I mean we were literally

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driving in my Forerunner like there was

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barely a road it was kind of more of

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dirt track and we stand out there and I

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talk about Henrietta Lacks there so

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tobacco farming is basically what is the

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big

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industry yeah yeah for for that area and

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so that's what she does and kind of in

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that sharecropper kind of idea right

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where her family is now working the land

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so she drops out of school in the sixth

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grade and of course as you can imagine

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it's probably segregated yeah right so

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she has to probably walk farther away to

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school and the family needs help at the

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farm and money so she drops out and

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helps support her family

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they say she had hazel eyes a small way

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size six shoe she's always wearing red

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nail polish and a pleated skirt and the

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few pictures that survive of her she

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definitely looks like she

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cares about

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how she presents herself yeah I mean the

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the picture that I found when I look her

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up there's there's they the portrait I

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think it looks like it was painted I'm

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not sure so that was painted for the

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National Gallery right and that's in the

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Smithsonian the um yes and then and the

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Smithsonian African-American history

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right now they take they paint that

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portrait off a photograph

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of her yeah and the couple photographs

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that do survive of her she is very well

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presented like you can tell she really

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cares about how she looks and that's

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great you know good for her like she

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just looks

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good you know red nail polish pleated

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skirt she keeps herself well put

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together she cares about her how she

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presents herself in 1935 when she's 14

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she gives birth to her first child a son

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so at that house where she lives with

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her great-grandfather she also lives I

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think with like her second cousin who

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will become her husband so he's also

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there I didn't realize they were like

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distantly related yes okay and then in

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1939 she gives birth to a daughter uh

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her name is Elsie so she has two

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children before she marries him David

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lacks in 1941 so she has one child of 14

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one child at 18 gets married at 20.

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in Halifax County which is where Clover

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is so in that county they get married

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and it's later that year in 1941 that

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they all moved to Baltimore Maryland and

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they moved there for opportunity they

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moved there to escape the racism this is

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the beginning of the war

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oh that's right this is right before

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World War One started so I think they're

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just trying to get away from

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the lack of opportunity sure and there's

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more opportunity up North so they moved

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to Baltimore I think they have family

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who had also moved there and said come

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come here and there's more opportunity

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here so that's where they go to

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Baltimore Maryland and she has three

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more children where they while they live

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there

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but it's there her last child is born in

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November of 1950 and then in January she

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goes to John Hopkins hospital because

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that's one of the few places where

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African Americans can go to be treated

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it's still segregated it is a segregated

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Hospital segregated waiting rooms but

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she has her words are not in her womb

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she thought it was her pregnancy right

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she gives birth in November but then in

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January the knot has not gone away so

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she goes to John Hopkins University and

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a doctor Dr Howard

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John's takes a biopsy and

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he takes a biopsy of off of a mass in

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her cervix

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and

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the samples were given then to a doctor

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guy and he's a researcher for John

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Hopkins now at the time this is a normal

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thing to do sure they're trying to

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figure out what's going on so this would

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happen to a white person or a black

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person it would take a sample from

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good healthy cell tissue and cancer cell

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tissue compare the two they do that

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nowadays yes so this is not you don't

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need to give consent to have those

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samples taken and tested sure I mean

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you've basically when you come in and

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you say like I'm signing all the forms

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to say like yeah I'm not going to sue

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you if you help me out and you're doing

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all this stuff like that's what you're

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signing so it's Dr guy who's the

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researcher John Hopkins who takes these

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cells and he's the one who and we'll get

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into what happens he discovers this cell

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line and he calls it the Gila cell line

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yeah now what's unique about her cell

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line well we'll talk more about that but

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let me talk more about her life okay

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sure

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so Gila is the first two initials of her

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first name and the person initials of a

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last name yeah that was a cool that's

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how they then and that was just a

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typical way of labeling cell lines it

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wasn't unique to her this is how they

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would do everybody's cell line these

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easy way to classify them

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uh she goes back to the hospital for

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severe abdominal pain in August of 1951

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she stays there and she dies in October

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October 4th 1951 and she's buried in

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Clover in an unmarked grave until 2010

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and she dies at 31 years old yeah so

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what happens is Dr guy after taking

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these cells

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he notices that they not only produce at

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a high rate but they are they stay alive

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they don't they don't die

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so you can keep them alive long enough

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to examine them to do tests on them

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which which wasn't normal it's never

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never been seen before right most cell

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lines die quickly they can't survive

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outside the body they don't multiply

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like that now was it these were like the

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cells that were already affected by the

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cancer so

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they're not sure quite what happened

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what happens is I think they what I

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believe when I was reading is they took

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a cell from the cancer so a mutated

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malignant cell and he made the cell line

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from one of those cells so it actually

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is like a a cell line that has been

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adapted from her cell line sure sure so

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it is it quite technically

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a a healthy Gila right or right cell

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right it is a cancerous and then it's a

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line that's been made from that right

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and they're the first cells that could

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be divided multiple times without dying

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and that's why they're called Immortal

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so that's why it's the immortal

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Henrietta Lacks and it's not even so

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much that it's like right cells right

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there's I'm not I'm not I've never

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claimed to be good at science right but

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so you can split a cell I'm assuming

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tons of times but it's basically it just

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won't die like this like this to this

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day right as we are recording it's 2022.

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her cell line is a lie it's alive it's

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the one that's been used it's for

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biomedical research it's the most

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contemporary used cell line yeah it's

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just when I heard that one you kind of

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think like does this woman have like

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super powers yes it's crazy so that's

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kind of what we talk about in the video

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is we I equate her to Wonder Woman yeah

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I equate her to the closest thing you

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will ever know to a superhero sure

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because you know those superheroes those

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cells regenerate quickly they know they

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don't die because Wolverines yeah they

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can heal fast yeah right now it's not

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quite the same thing but it's the

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closest thing you'll get to it is

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because her cell line that one specific

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cell

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it repeatedly divides and divides and

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divides and they can make samples of it

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and send them off in all the little

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vials and these have led to huge

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breakthroughs like the Gila cell line

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developed the polio vaccine yeah the

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hela cell line developed

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um the AIDS we did the AIDS research

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cancer research it's it's the first cell

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that was cloned in 1955 and there's 11

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000 patents that the Gila cell line has

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developed

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and if I remember right when I was

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making the video and doing you know my

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little bit of post right what all the

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research that you do right I'm looking

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up stuff I mean it actually the the cell

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kind of got out into the the greater I

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say medical community around the world

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pretty quickly oh yes everyone uses it

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yeah I mean and not just us worldwide

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worldwide and you so there are companies

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that you can buy sells from to do

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research yeah and they mass-produced the

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hela cell line so it's basically a

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commercialized cell line yeah it's and

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so that's where you get into the ethics

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right of this because so much money has

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been generated from her cell line right

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right not even millions billions of

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dollars yeah easy and so then you have

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her family she dies at 31 right and she

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has

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how many children by that point she has

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six

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three which is five five children by

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that point and they get

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just you know then they get distributed

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to family right because she died yeah

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and they suffer trauma people who didn't

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want to raise them or weren't very good

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caregivers and they grew up in relative

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poverty some of her children can't even

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afford medical insurance and here her

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cell line is developing these huge

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breakthroughs in medical research

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generating billions of dollars and her

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family can't get their own medical

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coverage right so what happens is

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people don't want to know more about the

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cell line who are these people who are

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who's this family that that this selling

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came from so they would get phone calls

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through the years oh uh how often were

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you sick

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what happened to your family researchers

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trying to do kind of post whatever

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follow-up yeah

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they didn't quite understand what they

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were being asked and told especially her

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husband when they said well we have her

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cell line here he thought is she still

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alive like what what are you saying I I

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she died like they didn't quite

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understand yeah and so not only are they

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using their mothers and wives cell line

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but they start to really dig into their

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medical history sure and so that kind of

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ethical questions of their medical

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history being so

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relatively public I mean even though

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it's like medical you know HIPAA and all

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that stuff when there's that many

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medical laboratories it's hard to say

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that that's private yes and so that's

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where more ethics comes into play plus

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she's African-American so you fall into

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these other ethical questions the

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Tuskegee experiment where they gave all

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these men African-American men syphilis

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unbeknownst to them to see what it would

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do to them and that happened in 1950s

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right you have all these

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African-American women who were enslaved

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who were tested on by doctors who became

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the fathers of gynecology

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and these women gave no consent and they

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found out all about women's reproductive

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Health by testing these enslaved women

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yeah and these men then get revered

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as breakthroughs in medical science so

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yeah there's a lot of questions yeah so

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that's where Gila Henry lacks falls into

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that realm yeah so you start to question

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well are we

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are we overlooking her rights because

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she's African-American are we

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overlooking her rights because she's a

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woman are we looking at where she comes

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from so those are the kind of questions

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so her family when this was all brought

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to light when they could understand what

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was happening

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that's when they kind of pushed back and

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asked for more say and what happens to

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herself ask for more just a seat at the

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table

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yeah I mean she didn't have you

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mentioned it in the video I mean her

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grave didn't even have a headstone until

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like a few years ago yeah 2010 and it

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was Dr Gay and his group from John

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Hopkins that sponsored that that I

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didn't realize that they are the ones

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who paid for it that's actually kind of

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cool it is I mean they will never they

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never admitted any wrong during

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apologized but they would do

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stuff like that sure right so very aware

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of what they're doing and saying without

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saying it yeah I didn't realize that

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they were the ones who who helped do

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that yeah and then I think they've also

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funded like some other family headstones

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I don't know if it's them but like so

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what family has written yes so for for

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at least for for Elsie

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um who had a hard life because she was

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born with a mental handicap and then she

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was institutionalized

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their family when they knew that

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Henrietta Lacks was getting a tombstone

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the family raised money to make sure

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that she had one as well yeah so that's

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what that other when you see the two

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tombstones they look relatively newer

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yeah and that's why that's if you can

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find if you can find so that's that was

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part of our journey yeah absolutely so

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putting the story together

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again she should be more revered and

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more celebrated and when you go to

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Clover there is a marker to her but that

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is it and we wanted to find her grave

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and we really wanted to pay respects to

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her gray but her grave is unmarked her

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grade was marked but it's in an unmarked

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graveyard right well so let me let me

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kind of paint the larger picture here so

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here we are driving from Norfolk out to

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Clover it's about three hours it's three

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hours yes kids are Troopers right the

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the marker is pretty easy to find that's

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the first thing I think that we found

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it's right off the kind of little main

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highway freeway there so we we find that

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you know and then we kind of like you

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don't your kind of research ahead of

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time and be like okay I think this is

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where either her husband's grave might

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be so we went to find a grave we went to

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find a grave and find a grave gives you

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usually gives you like a GPS coordinate

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yeah and it gave us a GPS coordinate for

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her for the marker oh on this side of

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the road yeah and then I usually what I

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do when I do grave research these are

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the kind of helpful hints that I give is

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look up a spouse or a child that's

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buried close by and sometimes it'll give

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you that marker yeah and you can find

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them that way so we did her husband

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that's why we went over there and for

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David uh lacks it gave us that that GPS

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coordinate rate in that tobacco farm

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area and so to anybody listening I would

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not recommend trying to drive out to you

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need a four-wheel drive you need a

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four-wheel drive vehicle we were driving

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like off I think there's a sign that's

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like you're no longer driving in like

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state-funded roads right it's all of a

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sudden it was dirt and gravel and you

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know just kind of we're out there in the

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boonies so that's why I thought the

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grave uh the the graveyard was that's

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worth it it kind of would have kind of

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would have made sense sure so we looked

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around couldn't find it and I knew she

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had a tombstone I knew she had a

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memorial marker we weren't seeing

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anything we weren't seeing anything like

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that so we drove back out and as we're

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driving out we see a car on the side of

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the road and I'm I told Scott I'm just

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gonna ask this person because we're in a

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small town I grew up in a small town I

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know small town thank God you did

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because I am not that person maybe it's

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just because I'm a guy and I don't want

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to ask directions but I was like ah we

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can't find this we're driving back out

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this is like one little road yeah

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was it lacks road yeah it lacks yeah Lex

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Road

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um Lex family Road

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lacks Town Road LAX town LAX town road

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so where we drove in dockstown road all

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the way till the dirt off the off the

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Incorporated part of it you know back in

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the boonies back there I mean Clover

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Virginia is is pretty remote there might

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be a town of like maybe a couple hundred

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people yeah I don't even know if the

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town's incorporated or if it's an actual

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town I'm not sure but we're driving back

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out we're like we're kind of getting

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frustrated we're hoping we can find it

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we're looking around we see this truck

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just kind of looks like someone's

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waiting for someone to come out of their

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house sweet Jen's like windows open yeah

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she's like she's like Scott pulled next

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to this person I'm gonna ask I was like

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okay fine so you do and then she just

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strikes up a conversation yeah I asked

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that ma'am we're looking for Henrietta

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lack's grave do you know where it's at

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she goes oh Henny yeah her grave is back

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the way you came yeah you're gonna go

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down the hill and you're gonna see a

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house on the right a yellow house with

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the door open it's an old house yeah

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very country directions yeah it was

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quite adorable she's like and when you

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see that house it's just right off right

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off beside it you'll see a little path

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and which there's no path it's just

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grass yeah yeah I mean luckily we were

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there in winter so it's a little bit

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easier to see because all the leaves

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were off the trees and she's like and

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you just drive up that path and don't

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worry it looks like you're driving on a

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lawn but you're not just drive up that

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path and you'll see it when you get up

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there and I was like okay so down the

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hill and she's like yeah just just down

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the hill don't go back up the hill and I

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told her we just went over a bridge she

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goes no don't go that's too far she goes

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just down the hill you'll see the yellow

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house with the door open it's open

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because no one lives there anymore and

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it's it's an old abandoned house it's an

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abandoned house she goes and that's

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where you're gonna it you won't see a

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road or anything you'll just go right

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beside it you'll see some grass area

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drive on that and drive up over that

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hill and that's and I would say you

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don't need four-wheel drive to get up

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there no I wouldn't say that it's it

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wasn't it wasn't that bad but that those

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were good directions yeah and you

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wouldn't we wouldn't be able to find

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another one there's no sign there's no

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nothing you can't see it from the road

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you would think it's someone's lawn yeah

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so we have GPS locations like precise

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GPS locations for that you know on our

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website if you want to look up the

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episode travel guide for for that

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particular episode yes and I you know I

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posted some of this on Facebook finding

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the grave and I had some people say well

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maybe their family doesn't want you to

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know don't want you to see it but the

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family has explicitly said they want her

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story told yeah they want her celebrated

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they want people to know her they want

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people to celebrate her and respect her

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so I felt like no I think they want

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people they're they're pretty public

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about it I mean when I Googled you know

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the lacks family and Henrietta Lacks I

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mean part of the top hits was like some

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recent lawsuits that they're trying to

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that they're they're kind of working on

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again some of these big medical

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companies that are excuse me um making

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making money off of this exactly so we

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we went to the Grave there's there's

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about 20 Graves yeah easily it's

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definitely a family yeah it's a family

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plot yeah plot

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um and we left our Wonder Woman figurine

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at her grave and we paid our respects uh

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her grave looks like a book

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almost and I think her family wrote the

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Epitaph okay so I think it was her

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granddaughters who wrote the Epitaph on

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the front but it's very respectful she's

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buried beside her mother

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and then she has a

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uh her daughter Elsie on the other side

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so it's her mother on one side and Elsie

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on the other side so I think it's a very

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for me it was just a very important

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place to be there it looked like a very

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solemn place and beautiful place I'm

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happy we found it you never would have

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been able to find it no no we got we got

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we got super lucky I think I saw one

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YouTube video

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it was like somebody looked like they

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were in their Jeep showing that they

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were driving up up to it but it's only

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because I was specifically Googling you

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know Henrietta Lacks you know Family

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Cemetery or something and so I was able

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to find it and you could see right but

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he's not really talking it's just kind

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of him showing driving up that way

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um but really learning about her in

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general and then learning the Legacy

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that she left through

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medicine and the history there it was

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quite incredible yeah it

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here is a person who her life

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and her cells

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have made an immeasurable impact on all

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of us on medicine like there's nobody

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really who has not been touched by what

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her cells have been able to produce in

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the medical world the covid vaccine yeah

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I mean so it's the work again this is

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2022 right so if you're listening to

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this in the future it's 2022 right now

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the coveted vaccine right they used her

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cells to develop that so it was just

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learning all this and making the video

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was was really pretty neat because here

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is someone who's

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I don't know if that she's really taught

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in in history classes and this that and

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the other but the impact that she had

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and she's well enough known that she

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there was a you know movie made and

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Oprah was in it and this that and the

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other but it was pretty incredible so

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Henrietta Lacks may not have known what

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her Legacy would be but it's there

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nonetheless her sales for right or wrong

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have provided medical breakthroughs that

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doctors have only dreamed of before the

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hela cell was named it became widely

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known and used in medical research

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so next time you talk to someone who's

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received a cancer treatment HPV vaccine

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and vitro fertilization and yes the

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covid vaccine think of Henrietta Lacks

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thank you for listening to the talk with

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History Podcast and please reach out to

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us at our website talk with history.com

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but more importantly if you know someone

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else that might enjoy this podcast

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please share it with them especially if

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you think today's topic would interest a

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friend shoot him a text and tell them to

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look up a talk with history podcasts

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because we rely on you our community to

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grow and we appreciate you all every day

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thank you Henry relax and thank you to

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her family we'll talk to you next time

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foreign

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[Music]

About the Podcast

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Talk With History
A Historian and Navy Veteran talk about history inspired travels, their YouTube channel journey, and examine history through conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there

About your host

Profile picture for Scott Bennie

Scott Bennie

Host of the Talk With History podcast, Producer over at Walk with History on YouTube, Editor of the Hashtag Historic newsletter.