A New York Times March 10 special print section entitled “Overlooked” pays tribute to 15 remarkable women whose obituaries were never published. Among these 15 women is Henrietta Lacks, a native of Clover who died at the young age of 31 and unbeknownst to her, some of her cells were removed from her body for use in research.

The New York Times series presents obituaries for historically significant women who never received acknowledgement for their contributions when they died. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/10/insider/overlooked-women-cover-design.html)

The story of how her unique cell line became one of the most important biomedical research advancements of the 20th century gained world-wide attention through the New York Times Best Selling Book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, released in 2010.

An HBO movie of the same name was produced by and starred Oprah Winfrey.

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on Aug. 1, 1920, but she quickly and affectionately came to be called Hennie by her family.

After her mother’s death, she was raised by extended family members in the Clover community where she lived in a former slave cabin known to the Lacks family as the home-house, most of which still stands today, just yards away from Lacks’ final resting place.

Lacks was baptized in St. Matthews Church in the town of Clover and educated in the same town.

As a child, Henrietta worked the exhausting life of a tobacco farmer’s daughter alongside her cousins.

She later married and began her family in Clover.

In 1941, Henrietta moved with her husband, David “Dye” Lacks, and their first two children, Lawrence and Elsie, to Turner Station, near Baltimore, Maryland.

They moved because of the unfairness of a culture and social system that gave little or no economic opportunity to African-Americans and even less opportunity to an African-American woman.

Her husband found work in the steel mills, and Lacks continued raising her growing family, which soon included another daughter, Deborah, and two more sons, David, known as “Sonny,” and Joseph, now known as Zakariyya.

Like many stories of triumph and healing, Lacks’ heroism started with tragedy and suffering.

In 1951, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore before her untimely death at the young age of 31.

Prior to her death and unbeknownst to her, some of her cells were removed from her body for use in research.

Also unbeknownst to the rest of the world at the time was that we had all received a miraculous gift in the form of human cells that did not die. Henrietta Lack’s cells, shortened in name to HeLa cells, and so disconnecting her full name from their power and promise for over half a century, became the first immortal cell line.

This immortality allowed Henrietta’s cells to be replicated and distributed to researchers around the world who could then test their theories and validate their results on an identical base line of living cells, suddenly advancing biotech research by leaps and bounds.

Over the decades, the HeLa cell would be named in over 11,000 patents, including just three years after Lacks’ death, when her cells were used to develop the polio vaccine.

HeLa cells have been used to research and develop new therapies to fight cancer and AIDS, and in the effort to map the human genome, that holds the key to “personalized medicine” which could treat or even cure everyone of almost every ailment and disease over time.

Henrietta Lacks’ family, in her honor, this year chose the Commonwealth of Virginia, as the only place in the world to partner with and create a new lifescience research and cancer treatment center in the name of Henrietta Lacks – “a heroic effort for a true hero.”

This year’s General Assembly considered and deliberated the formation of the Henrietta Lacks Commission, the purpose of which will be to create, build and see to sustainable operation the Henrietta Lacks Life Science and Cancer Treatment Center just a few short miles from where Henrietta lies in eternal rest, in Halifax County.

The Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center currently is conceived to be a $50 million, 200,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art medical research and treatment facility, to be built in the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority’s Southern Virginia Technology Park (SVTP), a short drive from Henrietta Lacks’ Clover home and final resting place.

The Henrietta Lacks Life Science Center’s mission will be to accelerate biomedical research through advanced methods and highest-speed bio-data collection and analysis.

God bless Henrietta Lacks.

Rotarians working to end polio

Speaking of medical advancement, Rotary International along with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is nearing the complete eradication of polio, worldwide.  

Recently, local Rotary Club President-elect Mike Lyons reminded us that in the 1950’s, Wytheville was the epicenter of polio in our nation with over 100 cases.  Signs were posted asking visitors to return next year, but to not stop then.  

Even within his own family, Mike said polio became a reality when his father’s sister contracted that horrid disease.  

“The idea that the cause nor a cure wasn’t yet a reality seems so foreign now,” he says.  

So far this year only three cases have been reported worldwide, wow!  

Your local Rotary is truly international in scope and efforts.  Local funding is helping to make the eradication of polio a reality.

We join the local Rotary Club president and all Rotarians in asking others in South Boston to help create a miracle within this lifetime by joining their local Rotary Club or by making a contribution to Rotary International through The South Boston Rotary.

For more information about changing the world by making sure no child is disabled by polio ever again, visit endpolionow.org.

Connie Nyholm among ‘Most Influential Virginians’

Connie Nyholm is all business — one can hear it in her voice, see it in her face, and prove it via the extraordinary success of the Virginia International Raceway in Alton.

That’s why Nyholm once again has been named one of 50 of the “Most Influential Virginians” by Virginia Business magazine in their March magazine.

Nyholm, the majority owner and dynamic CEO of Virginia International Raceway in Alton, has proven she knows how “to bring it home,” and she’s willing and able to share the secrets of her success.  

VIR welcomes more than 400,000 visitors each year to its six road courses, onsite lodging and restaurants, all testifying to Nyholm’s ability to leverage her products and grow a 1,370 acre real estate site that started as little more than bulldozed acreage into a sophisticated, customer-first, world-class track and resort.

According to the article in March’s Virginia Business magazine, Nyholm also serves as president of the Road Racing Industry Council and sits on the boards of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

One of the reasons Nyholm said she believes her raceway works is because it’s a multi-use site with world-class amenities designed to accommodate the specific needs of specific clients.

In most recent developments, Nyholm tells Virginia Business the resort will host the Sports Car Club of American Runoffs in October, featuring the nation’s best amateur racers.

“Having the 2019 Runoffs will be an important part of VIR’s history,” she is quoted as saying.

 VIR’s clientele is specialized, often repeat business, and while the raceway employs locals, its customers come from across the country and the world. 

In an interview several years ago with a Gazette-Virginian reporter, Nyholm shared her business secret — “to think, not like a landlord, but like a tenant,” and this perspective — the ability of her team to hand-off at precisely the right moments and make one touchdown after another — is what makes VIR’s management model the gold standard for regional development.

Paula I. Bryant is the editor of The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at pbryant@gazettevirginian.com.​

Paula I. Bryant is the editor of The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at pbryant@gazettevirginian.com.