Henrietta Lacks? I don’t know her. Most people will say so. An anonymous character or a victim of medicine? A black woman used for scientific research or one of the terminally ill patients whose cells, collected for scientific experiments, turned out to be the first to be capable of immortal effort in the history of science.

It all happened in 1951 in Baltimore. 31-year old Henrietta got cervical cancer and died after a few months of ineffective treatment. She did not know that she had her cells collected and that they turned out to be capable of multiplying. She never learnt about HeLa cells and emotions these cells stirred among scientists. She orphaned five children who did not receive any support, and disloyal doctors built symbolic and/or material capital on her. It is a melodrama that is worth producing as a Hollywood movie. Yet, wouldn’t it be better to look at the story of Henrietta Lacks from the common perspective and to calmly think over the issue of the ownership of cells? Would the scientific progress be possible, if we had the right to claim compensation for donated tissues? Would we make a cells price-list? How much would healthy and cancer cells be? Which are more precious? Other doubts also arise that concern the democratic progress of medicine. Who is making money and who is benefiting from it? The story of Henrietta and HeLa cells touches many subjects and provides no answers. It becomes a play of conscience, experience, and conviction. And, meanwhile, the routine samples of our cells, collected during examination, have their own life. Do you miss them?

(…) What I am thinking about here are not the HeLa cells, but rather their donor, who, quite unlike her cells, has neither become immortal nor recorded in the history of science. Because she was a woman, an African American; she was poor and uneducated.

Piotr Morawski, “Dialog”

Can creation of the HeLa line be treated as the fulfilment of our dreams of immortality? Can you speak of immortality without consciousness? How much does the triumph of progress mean when confronted with personal tragedy? Would you decide to keep your mother alive for the sake of hundreds of polio victims? Such questions abound. No binding answer has been found to any of them, as such answers simply do not exist. The thing is to pose them. (…) Here, natural science meets humanism. Henrietta Lacks is a perfect example of the combination of both kinds of heritage. Definitely worth seeing.


Anna Smolar, Marta Malikowska, Maciej Pesta, Sonia Roszczuk, Jan Sobolewski

Anna Smolar

Piotr Gruszczyński

Anna Met

Natalia Fiedorczuk-Cieślak

Rafał Paradowski

Jan Sobolewski & ensemble

Marek Nowak

Marta Malikowska, Sonia Roszczuk, Maciej Pesta, Jan Sobolewski

Nowy Teatr and Copernicus Science Centre

Onkocafe – Razem Lepiej Foundation

23 April 2017