The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In part thanks to the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and its author, Rebecca Skloot, the story of Henrietta Lacks and the tissues taken from her without her knowledge or consent is no longer unknown. To briefly summarize, Lacks — a poor African-American woman — was being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951, and some of her cells were removed, cultured, and labeled “HeLa” by the medical staff. Although this was and is common practice, Lacks’ cultured cells didn’t die out, because of a rare condition relating to their cancerous nature — even though she herself succumbed to the cancer. Since that time the HeLa line of cells, grown from the original sample, has been shipped all over the world and used in a wide variety of medical research.

The medical science benefits obtained from HeLa are undeniable; the polio vaccine is just one example of what our society owes to Henrietta Lacks’ involuntary donation. The book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks outlines this and many others, but that’s not the primary story to be told. Instead, the book is part investigation, part discourse on medical ethics, part indictment of the shameful treatment of African-Americans (and poor people in general) by the medical establishment over the years. It’s a rare non-fiction book that is a gripping read, with an emotional impact equal to many novels.

In fact, as with a novel, I hesitate to say too much about the details of its contents; my primary impulse is to conclude by saying “everyone should read it”. However, given one of my major themes in this blog, I want to highlight one aspect of the book: that scientific education is a boon to society. A major part of the fear and uncertainty faced by the family of Henrietta Lacks was because, as poor black people, they were not given educational opportunities in general, much less enough scientific understanding to grasp the meaning of HeLa. Once the family begins to gain that knowledge, however, their fear and (admittedly sometimes justified) paranoia abates.

Patronizing and “protecting” people from knowledge is misguided and damaging, even if said knowledge isn’t pleasant. It’s bad enough when a doctor or researcher withholds vital information from an individual; far worse is when a society decides certain people by virtue of their skin color, ethnic background, or financial status don’t need education. Not everyone will be a scientist or needs to be a scientist, but that doesn’t mean that basic science education isn’t part of a fair and equal society. The case of Henrietta Lacks shows how the failure of the scientific, medical, and educational establishments can have a huge impact on the personal lives and relationships of people simply through neglect and oversight. That message is one our society has yet to absorb; my hope is that this book and Skloot’s work will help instill that lesson.

2 responses to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

  1. >Patronizing and “protecting” people from knowledge is misguided and damaging, even if said knowledge isn’t pleasant.

    Well said.

  2. […] Skloot wrote one of the other best nonfiction books I read in the last year: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Read it. Dig it. Join […]

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