Health & African American History

Feb. 23, 2023.  47 years ago, then-President Ford declared February to be "Black History Month" continuing the decades-long expansion of efforts to recognize and celebrate the achievements of African Americans with the ultimate goal of incorporating the stories of African Americans and all BIPOC persons into the fabric of US history all year long.

Developing a more complete understanding of our complex social history can contribute greatly to our personal health and well-being.  Dr. Sandro Galea, Dean and Professor of the Boston University School of Public Health, wrote a compelling commentary on History as a Determinant of Health illustrating some of the many issues that shape public health; often impacting local societies for generations.  Galea argues that we should examine all health history factors, including poor policy decisions such as the inhumane Tuskeegee Experiments  where medical treatments were deliberately withheld from poor African American men.  Less well-known are the ethical and moral considerations of African American Henrietta Lacks and her family.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot, 2010)  revealed the impact of Ms. Lacks contributions to medical science where the dying Henrietta Lacks unknowingly and without consent,  donated cells in what was for many years, the only human cell line able to reproduce indefinitely.  Her cells, known as HeLa cells (Henrietta Lacks), continue to be used in research around the world; including, most recently, in the race to develop vaccines and treatments against COVID-19.  

While we also celebrate and honor Famous Contributors to Health and Medicine, it's also important to pause to consider the contributions of the many unknown and unrecorded stories of all of our ancestors who have exemplified perseverance in our quest to better understand health and humanity.

Johns Hopkins Statement: Henrietta Lacks