Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer and mother of five, remains one of the most uncanny people who ever lived due to her possession of what the Marvel Universe describes as a regenerative "healing factor." How else can you describe a person who continues saving lives more than 60 years after being "dead"? Wait, why put "dead" in quotes?
On February 1, 1951, Henrietta Lacks visited Johns Hopkins for treatment of what she soon learned was cervical cancer. Because this was the 1950s, Henrietta was subjected to painful, primitive radiation treatments more befitting a Hulk origin story than a human body. Never mind the discrimination of being a poor, black woman in a segregated hospital.
On October 4, 1951, Henrietta died at 31 of uremic poisoning, and was buried without a tombstone.
Jesus Christ... cue bunnies.
Her doctors were unable to save her, but noticed something unusual about her cells. It turned out they "could be kept alive and grow," even after cell division. While this may not sound like much of a big deal, it was essentially the medical equivalent of owning a chunk of Wolverine in a Petri dish. The doctors toyed around with Henrietta's name, ultimately dubbing them HeLa cells. Seriously. HeLa.
A HeLa cell.
So they started growing these cells, using them for research into "cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping and countless other scientific pursuits." And growing them. And growing them.
As of today, 50 million metric tons of Henrietta's "immortal" cells have been grown (enough to outweigh 100 Empire State Buildings). In 1952 alone, Henrietta's HeLa cells helped save millions of people (mostly children) during the worst years of the polio epidemic. Name a disease and a date (past, present or future) - and Henrietta's remarkable, unsung role in human history was to help find some way to cure it.
However, Henrietta's story also has a flipside: In one of the most dick moves in medical history, all of this was done behind the back of Henrietta's family, who continued to live in poverty while the medical community regularly reincarnated the family superheroine. Should you wish to show your gratitude to this Superwoman whose mutant powers literally "saved the world", her foundation is accepting donations to finance scholarships for her great-grandchildren. We suggest donating soon, lest their tragic plight fill them with rage and bitterness against humanity. Just in case that whole mutant healing factor thing turns out to be hereditary.
Just imagine: Right now you have the power to write a book that could change the entire planet, and it would require no talent whatsoever.
No, in a good way.
Well, such was the case for Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman and college dropout who found himself in the middle of the Second Italian War of Independence during a 1859 business trip. As Dunant's train pulled in to Solferino, Italy, the Battle of Solferino had just pulled out, leaving 38,000 soldiers dead and dying throughout the countryside without any real care (which was just how they did it back then).
Although armed with less community organizing skills than Sarah Palin, Dunant transformed the entire town into an enormous army hospital using local women and girls whose medical knowledge consisted of nothing more than applying olive oil. Under Dunant's leadership, his army of volunteers provided assistance for the wounded regardless of nationality, purchased supplies, erected hospitals, and provided many of the fallen soldiers some much-appreciated Italian comfort in their final moments.
So, sounds like a pretty good deed that would be forgotten over the weekend, right? After all, that's the sort of heroism you probably see in every war.
Well, it was, which was why this college dropout, Dunant, wrote all about it in A Memory of Solferino, the book that eventually served as the inspiration for the Red Cross (which Dunant founded). For his heroic efforts that continue to save countless lives around the planet, Henry Dunant--dropout--received the first ever Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. The International Red Cross would win the award three more times after having saved who knows how many million lives.
In contrast, the greatest thing we ever invented after dropping out of college was the bacon cannon. And that, if anything, probably cost lives.
Henry Dunant, the patron saint of college students who enrolled just for the booze.
Norman Borlaug, "father of the Green Revolution," is officially recognized for saving "over a billion people" from starvation around the world. Over a billion. With a "B."
That would be like all the yellow guys.
A Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, Norman Borlaug basically trotted around the entire developing world dishing out delicious tips on high-yield, disease-resistant crops - much like that huge tomato Lisa planned to wipe out world hunger with on The Simpsons.
After kicking Johnny Appleseed's ass by planting farms the size of Kansas all over the planet, Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, 49 honorary degrees, a stained-glass window at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis and the rare honor of saving (on average) 10.5 million people a year for the entirety of his 95 year-long life.
"What have you done today?"
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For more real life superheroes, check out 5 Unknown Schmucks Who Turned Into Superheroes in the Clutch . Or find out about some people who could really be X-Men, in 7 People From Around the World With Real Mutant Superpowers .
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 05.03.10) to see the scientific studies done on Brockway's high tolerance for narcotics.