The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

TheImmortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

RebeccaSkloot’s book, TheImmortal Life of Henrietta Lackstakes the reader on a journey through the life of an African-Americanwoman, Henrietta. She had five children and died of cervical cancerin 1951 at the age of thirty-one (Skloot 18). Prior to her death,doctors took a sample of Henrietta’s cancerous cells and used themfor numerous medical studies. Henrietta’s tissue samples commonlyknown as HeLa were the first human cells to survive and multiply inculture. Therefore, her cells were used for the most importantmedical discoveries and developments of the last century.Consequently, they have facilitated the creation of chemotherapy,polio vaccines, gene mapping, cloning, and in vitro fertilization(Margonelli). The scientists refer to them as life-saving cells, butthey have continually failed to acknowledge the woman who diedbecause of these cancerous cells. However, the doctors did not informHenrietta that they were using her cells. Besides, her identity waskept a secret that even her family did not know about HeLa. Althoughinitially Doctor George Gey tried to keep Henrietta’s identityprivate, he later released it to a reporter (Skloot 109).Accordingly, the events surrounding Henrietta’s case portraymultiple incidences of racial discriminations experienced by AfricanAmericans during the 1950s. Nonetheless, Skloot also describesethical issues surrounding medical research.

Henriettawas treated at Hopkins, which was a segregated charity hospitalduring the Jim Crow era (Margonelli). According to Skloot, “anypatient in the public ward at the Hopkins was either poor or blackbecause they could not afford treatment elsewhere” (Skloot 15). Onthe other hand, the then prevailing attitude was that because thepatients did not pay for the services, it meant that the doctors wereallowed to use them in research (Skloot 29). One scientist in thebook argues for such practices explaining that “people are morallyobligated to allow doctors to use pieces of their tissues to advancemedical knowledge that will benefit everyone” (Skloot 321).However, this is not the case in Henrietta’s situation becauseeveryone else benefitted except her family. Therefore, the rightthing to do by Henrietta’s family was to disclose the intentions touse her cells for scientific advancements that would result innumerous financial benefits. Consequently, it would have allowed themto express their desires and not necessarily to enable them to cut inthe financial actions (Skloot 327).

Thenagain, the case of Henrietta was not an isolated incident during thatera, nor was it surprising to the black community living in Maryland.The racial and social differences between blacks and the medicalprofessionals allowed them to withhold vital information (Brandt 21).It was apparent in Henrietta’s case but also after her death. Forexample, the doctors calledHenrietta’s husband to ask if hecould let them carry out an autopsy on her body, which he refused.However, when he met with the doctor in person, he gave in andpermitted the procedure (Skloot 90). The doctors wanted to take moresamples from her bodies, again without disclosing their full intentto the family. That was clearly due to the racial differences, whichalso meant that the whites were superior.

Evidently,the medical field has greatly benefitted from Henrietta’s cells,which were sold by billions (Skloot 1). On the contrary, Skloot showsevidence indicating that Henrietta’s family suffered in poverty toan extent that they could not even afford medical insurance(Margonelli). For instance, Henrietta’s first cousin, suffered frompolio, a local white doctor took him to the nearest hospital underthe pretense that he was his son. Evidently, the hospital did nottreat any black people, and Cootie was only treated because he wassomewhat white (Skloot 79). Even worse, segregation existed in allsectors of the society including hospitals. Hence, the AfricanAmericans were treated differently, and the hospitals offered themsubstandard services. For example, Henrietta was treated using radiumthat eventually led to infertility and sore burns on her belly(Skloot 48).

Nevertheless,informed consent did not exist thus, researchers and doctors werefree to use the tissues of their patients as they desired with littleor no concern for their patients’ rights (Skloot 132). Even so,Henrietta’s case was marred by racial discrimination. Initially,the doctors did not seem to target Henrietta because of her race theyonly took her cell samples due to her condition. For instance, theevents that happened in the 1970s when the scientists started toresearch on her children were clearly based on racism. Further, theperiod was surrounded by the dark history of experimentation on blackpeople. It meant that the scientists could take the blood fromHenrietta’s family without actually explaining anything (Skloot192). The experiences of Henrietta and her family are similar to thefamous Tuskegee syphilis study. The poor, uneducated black mensuffering from syphilis were enlisted for several medical tests andstudies but then the doctors and scientists allowed them to diehorrible and entirely preventable deaths (Brandt 23). In this case,the doctors lied to the patients and even kept them from taking thelife-saving penicillin. Hence, Henrietta’s case is almost similarto the Tuskegee’s experiment. Moreover, was horrific forHenrietta’s family to learn that her cells were still alive evenafter her death yet they did not know anything about it.

Evenafter the abolition of slavery, most African Americans families suchas the Lacks’s family struggles with joblessness, profound poverty,ill health, and drug addiction. Besides, the law did not accord themany privileges due to the racial discrimination and segregation thatwas part of the society during that era (Margonelli). For example,the doctors who used the cell samples succeeded almost due to thefact they controlled the welfare of the poor and those consideredracially inferior, in this case, the blacks (Brandt 21). Theysuppress the voices of Henrietta’s family but keeping the crucialinformation from them. Hence, Henrietta work to science was notrecognized, and her family did not get any compensation. According toHenrietta’s daughter, “people got rich off her mother withoutthem knowing that they took her cells and yet they did not receiveany money for it” (Skloot 9). On the other hand, Henrietta’s sonhopes that one day they will receive the compensation they deserve.Instead, her contribution benefitted everyone else in the science andmedicine field all over the world except her family because thedoctors were able to progress without any opposition.

Althoughsome of the ethical issues raised in Henrietta’s case have not beenaddressed in their entirety, some progress had been made becauseinformed consent is not based on race. Every person has a right toknow what is happening to their cells although they do not have muchpower to control it. Hence, doctors are currently required to getinformed consent when they want to get tissue samples for researchpurposes like in Henrietta’s case (Skloot 317). Furthermore, civilrights acts were passed to end discrimination in all sectors of theAmerican society.

Inconclusion, racial discrimination is evident in Henrietta’s case.Racial segregation placed African Americans as inferior people wherethey only accessed substandard services from employment, education,to health care services. More than once, Henrietta underwent medicalprocedures without any knowledge what the doctors were doing. She wasgiven radium treatment, which resulted in sterility and abdominalpains. Being black, she was not given a choice if she wanted thetreatment considering the consequences. Then again, her cancerouscells were used in several medical studies that resulted indevelopment and advancement of various treatments and drugs. However,the doctors kept her identity private, and they did not even informher family, which meant that they were benefiting from her cellswithout opposition. Although the medical fields did not requireinformed consent, later doctors started taking blood from Henrietta’schildren without necessarily informing them the reasons behind theiractions. Therefore, Henrietta’s case was similar to the Tuskegeesyphilis experiment where black men were subjected to medicalresearch without being informed the full details and extent of thestudy. Besides, Henrietta’s contributions never benefitted herfamily. Instead, they continued to live in poverty, and they couldhardly access medical care that their mother’s cells helped toadvance. Consequently, the story portrays how the black community wassubjected to both economic and social hardships due to racialdiscrimination, which challenged their access to medical care. Thefear of experimentation and poverty led to continued differencesbetween the whites and minority health care. Nonetheless, thesituation is slowly changing for the better by giving people equalaccess to healthcare, and there are improved ethical practices in themedical field.


Brandt,Allan M. Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee SyphilisStudy. TheHastings Center Report 8.6(1978): 21-29. Web. 25 June 2015.

Margonelli,Lisa. EternalLife.5 Feb. 2010. Web. 24 June 2015.

Skloot,Rebecca. TheImmortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.New York: Crown Publishers, 2010. Internet Resource.