I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot for the first time in high school for a summer reading assignment I was rushing to complete the last week of summer break. Four years later, I chose to read this book again because I now have an interest in biochemistry, in particular a goal to study antiviral agents in the hopes of a Hepatitis B cure. This time around, I understood the significance this book had because it revealed details of the racist treatment of African Americas that are intertwined with the hidden truths and hypocritical acts of the medical system that unfortunately still exist. On October 4, 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer at the young age of 31.
Henrietta Lacks The purpose of Rebecca Skloot’s book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks, her illness, and how she completely changed science without even knowing it. Henrietta Lacks, a name that had been known to the world only as HeLa up until recent years; the first two letters of a name that belonged to a poor African American tobacco farmer. Henrietta Lacks was a woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 and HeLa, the line of cells taken from Henrietta that were the first line of cells to reproduce and survive in the lab indefinitely.
Rebecca Skloot’s purpose in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is to present Henrietta and her family’s story while presenting issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class in Henrietta’s story. Skloot also had a major goal of teaching people about Henrietta’s case so that it could be learned from in the future. This purpose can be broken down into three sub-purposes: showing the world the woman behind the science, discussing the roles of race and class, and critiquing science and ethical issues. By informing the reader about Henrietta Lacks’ cells that have changed the medical world and about the controversy surrounding them, Skloot is successful in presenting her purpose. All of these smaller purposes come together to create a novel that makes the reader think, feel, and want more of the Lacks’ riveting story.
In the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, the author demonstrates the harsh realities that many African Americans faced in the medical and scientific field during the mid 20th century. The author shows the unjust practices of this time period through interviews with the Lacks family and medical professionals. These harsh realities are proven when Skloot talks to Henrietta’s family. Henrietta’s husband, Day, explains how they took samples from Henrietta’s body without consent when Skloot writes, “Day clenched his remaining three teeth. "I didn't sign no papers," he said.
The primary ethical issue is that doctors took Henrietta Lacks’ cells without permission. Doctor Gey forgot the patient and focused his attention on the research. Doctor Gey’s self- interest and quest for recognition allowed him to cross ethical boundaries. He took advantage of Henrietta Lacks when she was sick, vulnerable and in need of medical attention therefore, one must question his moral judgment.
Henrietta Lacks was thirty years old and found a ‘knot’ on her cervix, which led to her going to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated with radium and x-ray therapy. Some of the tissue was removed from her tumor and sent to George Gey’s lab to be grown in test tubes. Gey was in charge of the Tissue Culture Department at Hopkins and had been researching and experimenting to attempt to make cells to divide so they could have an unlimited supply of cells to experiment on. Henrietta nor her family knew about the tissue sample and neither Gey or Hopkins informed them.
In the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, education plays a substantial role in what occurs throughout the book. Many major events are related to people not understanding what is happening to them. Skloot brings up the topic ’Lack of Education,’ frequently and this affected Henrietta's treatments, and how her family viewed the situation, and how the black community viewed scientist overall. In many occasions lack of education causes a major event to happen, “she didn't write much, and she hadn't studied science in school,”(pg 16) with little education Henrietta had no idea what was wrong with her. Without Henrietta or her family knowing symptoms of certain diseases Henrietta does not go to the hospital till the end.
I first heard about Henrietta Lacks story after noticing and advertisement of Oprah Winfrey directing or possibly playing the role of Ms. Lacks. Reading the caption underneath the picture posted I decided to inquire more about the Henrietta Lacks. Ms. Lacks was an African American woman who found out in 1951 after a biopsy, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The manifestation of the tumor was unlike anything that had ever been seen by the examining gynecologist Dr. Howard Jones. Henrietta Lacks was treated at the segregated John Hopkins Hospital with radium tube inserted and sewn into her body, a standard treatment at that time sewn in her body.
Henrietta Lacks Honor Essay “The reason Henrietta's cells were so precious was because they allowed scientists to perform experiments that would have been impossible with a living human. They cut HeLa cells apart and exposed them to endless toxins, radiation, and infection. They bombarded them with drugs, hoping to find one that would kill malignant cells without destroying normal ones.” (58)”Throughout the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” there are many examples of how the HeLa cell of Henrietta Lacks provided cellular information and examples that helped mold many cellular discoveries and experiments.
Is it right for one's life to be manipulated for the use of scientific research or is it just a evasion on the person's privacy. Henrietta Lacks was a African American with cells that intrigued many people, she was diagnosed with cancer leaving her to be cared for at her local hospital, where she would later die due to the extremity of the illness. While at the hospital she was unaware that the doctors there were experimenting on her taking cell samples from her body, to help find a resolution to multiple diseases. The people who examined Henrietta manipulated her and the rest of her family to gain information on her cellular structure to be ahead of others looking to achieve the same objective. Henrietta Lacks cells should have never been evaluated because it's an evasion of her freedom, a danger to her personal health, and cause conflicts.