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Celebrating African-American Contributions to Public Health

During Black History month, Franklin County Public Health celebrates the history of African Americans by honoring their leadership in public health.

Inoculation (vaccination) was introduced to America by a slave. Few details are known about the birth of Onesimus, but it is assumed he was born in Africa in the late seventeenth century before eventually landing in Boston. One of a thousand people of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony, Onesimus was a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather from his congregation in 1706.

Onesimus told Mather about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. By extracting the material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to the healthy individual making them immune. Considered extremely dangerous at the time, Cotton Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721 and over 240 people were inoculated. Opposed politically, religiously and medically in the United States and abroad, public reaction to the experiment put Mather and Boylston’s lives in danger despite records indicating that only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox.

Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation (vaccination) to the United States.

Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant; August 1, 1920 – October 4, 1951) was an African American woman whose cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, the first immortalized cell line  and one of the most important cell lines in medical research. An immortalized cell line will reproduce indefinitely under specific conditions, and the HeLa cell line continues to be a source of invaluable medical data to the present day.

Lacks was the unwitting source of these cells from a tumor biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951. These cells were then cultured by George Otto Gey who created the cell line known as HeLa, which is still used for medical research. As was then the practice, no consent was obtained to culture her cells, nor were she or her family compensated for their extraction or use.

Lacks grew up in rural Virginia. After giving birth to two of their children, she married her cousin David "Day" Lacks. In 1941 the young family moved to Turner Station in Baltimore County, Maryland so Day could work in Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. After Lacks had given birth to their fifth child, she was diagnosed with cancer. Tissue samples from her tumors were taken without consent during treatment and these samples were then subsequently cultured into the HeLa cell line.

Even though some information about the origins of HeLa's immortalized cell lines was known to researchers after 1970, the Lacks family was not made aware of the line's existence until 1975. With knowledge of the cell line's genetic provenance becoming public, its use for medical research and for commercial purposes continues to raise concerns about privacy and patients' rights.

In more recent times, in 1993, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a pediatrician and public health administrator, became the first African American to be named Surgeon General.