The Surprising Thing Henrietta Lacks & Hedy Lamarr Have In Common

Photo: Quantrell Colbert/HBO.
I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about Henrietta Lacks and Hedy Lamarr. That might seem weird, because these women could not be more different. The first was a poor Black tobacco farmer living in Virginia in the 1950s. The latter was the epitome of the glamorous Hollywood movie star, known as "the most beautiful woman in the world."
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But they actually have more in common than you'd think. Both were the subjects of films released this weekend — The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, starring Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne, aired on HBO, while Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a documentary directed by Alexandra Dean, premiered at the Tribeca Film festival on Sunday. Both women made incredible contributions to science and society. Both, in their own ways, changed the world. And neither of them knew it.
When Henrietta Lacks entered John Hopkins Hospital in 1951, she had no idea that doctors would take a piece of her tumor for research. The cervical cancer cells extracted from her body had extraordinary properties, and for the first time, scientists had a cell line which continued to multiply outside the human body — meaning they could use them to test how human cells would react to outside agents. These cells, known as HeLa, have been the basis for almost every major medical breakthrough since then. The polio vaccine, chemotherapy, the AIDS cocktail, in vitro fertilization — we have Henrietta Lacks to thank for all of those.
More than a decade before Henrietta Lacks got sick, Hedy Lamarr came up with a wild idea. In 1940, Allied ships were constantly falling prey to German submarines, due to lagging torpedo technology. So Hedy, who was born Hedwig Kiesler, the daughter of prominent Austrian Jews, decided she wanted to help her adopted country. She came up with a way for ships to communicate with torpedoes without interference by the Germans. Rather than transmit over a single radio channel, the signal would hop across frequencies, making it almost impossible to track. This was called frequency hopping, and in 1942, she received a patent for her invention. Though the Navy declined to use it during the war (more on that later), the technology she pioneered is the reason I'm writing this over a strong WiFi signal today. (Not to mention fun things like Bluetooth.)
Photo: REX/Shutterstock.
Hedy Lamarr
But just as Henrietta Lacks never got to see the impact she had on science and medicine, Hedy Lamarr was cheated out of her legacy. Dean's documentary does an amazing job of telling her story in her own voice, using newly discovered tapes from a 1990 interview with journalist Fleming Meeks. These show that, though Hedy was proud of her invention, she never fully grasped the full impact she'd had on the world. Nor did she ever get compensated for her contributions. In a post-screening panel with Dean, co-producer Susan Sarandon, and Diane Kruger (who is interviewed in the film), among others, patent lawyer Patricia Rogowski explained that, according to U.S. patent law, inventors have 20 years to make money on their inventions, after which their patent expires and the invention falls in the public domain. If they aren't properly recognized, they have 6 years after the patent expires to sue. It turns out that that Hedy's invention was used as the basis for something called a sonobuoy in the years following World War II — so she should have been paid. The end credits of the film state that her invention is worth an estimated $30 billion today. Hedy Lamarr died living on social security.
Obviously, there are some major differences here: Henrietta's legacy was hidden for many reasons, not least of which was her race. The long history of scientific experimentation on Black bodies is not one to be minimized. But the bottom line still rings true: it doesn't matter if they're a Hollywood movie star or a poor tobacco farmer. Women still get screwed.
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But still, there is a reason to be optimistic. The mere fact that these stories are now being told makes me believe that we're heading in the right direction. And that's the message I got from yesterday's discussion.
"I think we're at an interesting time when all these definitions of what's allowed are breaking down," Sarandon said during the panel. "Gender, what it means to be beautiful, what it means to be a man or a woman. All of these things fall under the same category — these very limited imaginations that we are guilty of surrendering to. Now that we're having these conversations, it's a really extraordinary time. Imagination is the beginning of everything, and when you tell stories like this, when you tell stories about Hidden Figures — not just older women looking at it but little girls — anytime you see a female astronaut, every time you see a male dancer, anytime you see anything that breaks these ridiculously narrow definitions of what you're allowed to be or have accomplishments, it lights something in people's minds and that's where change happens."
I'd like to think that somewhere, Hedy and Henrietta are having a very glamorous dinner party and nodding their heads.
You can catch The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO. Following its run at the Tribeca Film Festival, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story will premiere on the American Masters series on PBS.
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