What history never taught us but should’ve

History teachers taught us many things, but there were way more things they did not teach us. 

I always thought they had taught us everything we needed to know. Still, after watching several episodes of Bailey Sarian’s podcast, “Dark History,” I learned many things we don’t know about our history. Here are a few I wish I had learned in school. 

The Radium Girls 

This was a group of female factory workers who got radiation poisoning from radium. I was shocked when I learned about this because how could the workers not know something was wrong when the radium made their skin turn white? 

At the start of WWI, factories were established across the United States to manufacture watches and military dials painted with radium. This radioactive element glows in the dark, so glow-in-the-dark watches allowed soldiers to see the time on the battlefield when it was dark outside.

The women were told the paint was harmless, but it wasn’t. Daily, each woman working ingested deadly amounts of radium. Some watches were so tiny that their boss told them to use their lips to bring their paint brushes to a fine point. Because they were unaware of the danger of radium, the girls also painted their nails, teeth and faces for fun. 

Harrison Martland, a pathologist, created a test proving radium was the cause of death for many of the workers. The radium companies tried to discredit his findings, but the Radium Girls fought back. In 1938, Catherine Wolfe Donohue sued the company over her illness, and the issue was settled. 

The Radium Girls’ legacy helped push companies to take responsibility for their employees’ health and safety, eventually leading to the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

Henrietta Lacks is in our DNA 

You’ve probably never heard of Henrietta Lacks. She changed the face of medicine and saved many lives, but no one knows because it was kept a secret for many years. 

Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital due to some bleeding in her lower region. Her doctor told her it was a large, malignant tumor on her cervix. She then began undergoing radium treatment for this. 

Dr. George Gey received a sample of her cancer cell during her biopsy without Lacks’ knowledge or consent. He was a prominent cancer and virus researcher collecting cells from patients treated at Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer. Each sample he had would quickly die, but Lacks’ cells did the opposite; they doubled every 20 to 24 hours. Her cells were not just the first human cells to survive but the first to multiply outside of the human body. 

They tested her cells to find cures for diseases, which was easier than testing on humans. They had thousands of Lacks’s cells to test. No one knew they were hers because Gey had a code name for them: HeLa cells. 

Weeks later, he went to the press and told them how he had discovered these cells alone and that they would help cure many diseases. One disease in particular had been making its way through America: polio. 

Polio is a virus that attacks the spinal cord, weakens muscles over time and could potentially leave victims permanently paralyzed. Throughout the 1950s, the United States experienced regular polio outbreaks, with two major ones in 1916 and 1952. There were 3,145 deaths out of 57,628 reported cases in 1952. 

Once people learned about Gey’s work, they wanted their hands on these HeLa cells. They found a factory to help make more of her cells, and six trillion cells were made weekly and shipped to different scientists around the U.S. 

In 1954, a batch was sent to the University of Pittsburgh, where a scientist was trying to solve the mystery and find a cure. When HeLa cells were added to the Petri dish with polio, the disease died, and the cure was found. Once word got out about this, it became available for everyone. By the 1970s, polio was practically gone. 

No one credited Lacks or even told her family about this until Dr. Roland Patillo called up the Lacks family in the late 1970s. He told them what her cells did to save millions of people and helped forever change medicine as we know. 

But when word got out, it wasn’t exactly front-page news. It wasn’t until 1988 when Rebecca Skloot took a biology class, and during a lecture, her professor listed names that are important to biology. One of them was Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot went to her professor after class to learn more about Lacks, but he said he didn’t know anything else about her. So Skloot did some digging to find out more, which led her to Patillo’s door. After a lot of asking, Patillo let Skloot talk to the Lacks family. 

Skloot went on to write a book called, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which tells the whole story of how Lacks’s cells contributed to science and changed the world of medicine forever.

Write to Lauren Viska at lauren.viska@mnsu.edu

Header Photo: Pictured is Catherine Wolfe Donohue, who suffered radium poisoning at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Ill., surrounded by her husband and friends. (Courtesy Chicago Herald Examiner)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.