The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Part 1

What did you think about the reading?

Spending part of my summer reading a 300 page book about the cells of a woman nobody has heard of was not something I planned to enjoy. However, this book has so far proved me wrong. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was not only easy to read, but interesting as well. Rebecca Skloot manages to turn the dull story of malignant cancer cells into an emotional and inspiring journey through time. The book not only explains the science behind HeLa Cells, but has strong social and ethical underpinnings in many past and present societal problems. All in all, the book has proven to have a strong start, and I can’t wait to find out how it will end.

What did you learn?

For starters I learned the story of Henrietta Lacks. She was born to a poor family and given to her grandfather at a young age. She later went on to marry her cousin David (Day) Lacks and have five children. Around the age of thirty a large malignant tumor had taken root inside her cervix. After multiple failed attempts at complete treatment she finally painfully died from the metastasizing tumor. However, before her death, Henrietta’s cancer cells had been harvested and grown in test tubes (without her or the family’s consent) by Dr. George Gey and his associates. These cells later became the immortal HeLa cells, which lead to crucial medical innovations. However, what surprised me more than anything else was the cruel disinterest and apathy towards life that many doctors had in the name of “science”. The book gives examples like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. In the experiment African American men with syphilis were enrolled and given incentives so as to be observed as they died of their disease, although penicillin was already proven to be an effective treatment. Not only did studies such as this emphasize a lack of ethics in scientific research, but also a racial bias. Even Henrietta’s doctors were revealed to suffer from the same dispassion. After what seemed like successful treatment, Henrietta’s doctors waved away her continued complaints of pain until it was too late. The author herself raises the question of what would have happened if Henrietta was white instead of colored. While reading the book, Rebecca exposed me to a side of racism and medicine that I would never believe existed.

What questions do you still have?

After reading part one and learning of a few of the advancements powered by HeLa cells. My biggest question is what else can and have these cells brought to medicine? How will they effect medical advancement in the future? Would Henrietta be appalled by how her cells were and are used, or would she be proud and grateful to have saved so many lives? Will and can the family try to rise from poverty through Henrietta’s cells? Does the family really have a problem with the commercialization of the cells, or are they just annoyed by the swarms of reporters? Does unethical research like the Tuskegee Experiment still occur today? And is unethical research important for the safety of the majority of people?

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One thought on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Part 1

  1. Your introduction stating that you had held judgement towards the book then loved it is exactly how I began as well. You raise an interesting point on what Ms. Skloot said concerning wether or not if Henrietta’s was white, would have happened. There is a definite racial aspect to this story. In 1951, when Henrietta died, Johns Hopkins was considered to be the black hospital. When it was discovered some 25 years later who the woman behind the cells was, everyone was shocked. The woman whose cells meant so much to science was black and it shocked everyone but also helped show people that African American’s were not bad.

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