The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Never could I have imagined that the history about medical science and ethics could be so magnificently juxtaposed with the life of a poor African-American women who died of cancer in the 1950’s.  Skloot’s nonfiction book lovingly celebrates Henrietta Lacks’ life while also educating us on how her cells contributed to science and created a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry.  Have you ever even thought about whether you own cells or skin removed from your body?  This book will awaken you to the outright thievery taking place by the medical professionals.

In the 1950’s, if a poor African-American woman, such as Henrietta Lacks, needed medical care, she went to the free clinic.  Consent forms were nonexistent, and many doctors didn’t even believe they needed to inform their patients about the risks of medical procedures.  Doctors suffering from these “god complexes” believed that they were entitled to remove tissue and cells from patients without their knowledge or consent as payment for the free services.  One such doctor was Dr. Jones, who treated Henreitta Lacks for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  He saw her several times, and during one of Henrietta’s surgeries, he removed some tissue from the cancerous nodule growing in her uterus.

He sent the cells to his colleague, Dr. Gey for testing.  Dr. Gey had a lab across the street from the hospital where he was attempting to grow cells in a petree dish that could be used to test for vaccines.  Until receiving Henrietta’s cells, every tissue sample given to Dr. Gey had been unable to live outside the human body and had died.  But Henrietta’s cells were different.  Not only did they continue to live outside her body, they began duplicating!  Soon, Dr. Gey’s lab was filled with several thousand dishes of Henrietta’s cells, which he dubbed HeLa.

Dr. Gey promptly began experimenting on them, and also sent the cells to other doctors around the country.  In doing so, he pioneered the methods for transporting living cells that are still used today.  Over time, the HeLa cells would aid in such medical discoveries as the vaccine for polio, and result in the development of drugs for treating AIDS, herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, and HPV.  All of these treatments, of course, left doctors and pharmaceutical companies millions of dollars richer.  But Henrietta’s family would never realize any financial gain from the medicines their mother’s cells created, and most of her children would not even have basic health insurance.

I was absolutely shocked to learn that once cells or tissue are taken from our bodies, they no longer belong to us.  At that point, we do no have a right or ownership to our own cells.  Instead, our courts have ruled that the tissue or cells belong to the medical institution that takes them.  That means that if the cells or tissue ever have any monetary value, the only parties who will realize financial gains are that medical institution and doctor, not you, not me.  One would think that our legal system would surely enact some law to permit the person belonging to the cells to receive some compensation.  However, not only do these laws not exist, doctors are vehemently fighting against granting any rights to patients.  Only the egotistical people who make up the medical profession would think that compensating anyone other than them would prevent advancements to medical science.

The medical history provided by Skloot is informative yet extremely interesting.  She has masterfully tackled a difficult topic while effortlessly making it comprehensible to everyone, thus ensuring that a medical background is not required to enjoy this book.  Skloot addressed so many topics that transcend race, social status, and gender, that I would eagerly recommend the book to anyone.  Particularly those with an inquisitive mind for the history of medicine and ethics.


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