The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Hela cells were the first human cells to continuously reproduce outside of a human body.  They were shared with laboratories throughout the world and used in thousands of important experiments, including verifying the safety of the polio vaccine.  They are used in ongoing efforts to cure cancer.  They have been irradiated and poisoned and sent into outer space.  They have been mass-produced in extremely profitable biological factories.

The woman whose body these cells came from was a poor black woman from Virginia named Henrietta Lacks.  In 1951, Henrietta was treated for cervical cancer at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.  During her treatment, doctors took a small sample of tumorous flesh.  This sample, which would prove to be one of the most valuable medical resources of all time, was taken without Henrietta’s consent and few of the scientists who experimented on it ever wondered where it had come from.  Henrietta did not survive her cancer.  For decades, her children were unaware that some small part of their mother was living on in laboratories throughout the world.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shares the interwoven stories of Henrietta, her children and her cells.  This story, both biographical and biological, cuts across decades and cultures and, as a result, the book presents an intriguing examination of race and class in America.  Because this is primarily a story about health science and medical ethics, it includes people from all walks of life, and because it is talking about them not primarily as white people or black people, but as doctors or scientists or patients or students, one can see the effects of class and race on encounters where countless other factors are also in play.  Think of it as a study of how racism operates in the real world, rather than when it has been isolated in the lab.

Extreme oppression, such as slavery or the residential school system, has profound inter-generational effects.  Henrietta’s descendants are poor and troubled; some have criminal records.  Many of them face health conditions for which they cannot afford proper treatment.  In a book like this, where the inter-generational story is traced straight back to the days of slavery, one can see how Henrietta and her descendants have struggled valiantly against long odds and come to better understand the injustice of their current adversities.  Very little of the suffering which Henrietta’s descendants endured was the result of direct racist acts.  Most of it was the result of ordinary villainy such as abusive relatives, health problems and charming con-men, but their socio-economic condition meant that they did not have the resources to overcome or escape their problems.  Even the doctors who ‘stole’ Henrietta’s cells come off as good people blinded to the institutionalized racism around them by a myopic focus on the otherwise admirable goal of curing diseases.  If we think of racism only in terms of bigots yelling slurs, we will never be able to repair the damage it has done to our society.  Later on in the book, a scientist who meets with one of Henrietta’s descendants gives her a textbook on genetics so that she can learn more about Hela cells.  Unfortunately, she is hopelessly ill-equipped to understand it and this well-meaning gesture only ends up highlighting the vast gulf of class and education that exists between these two human beings.  Systemic inequalities in our economy and educational system can mean that often we aren’t even speaking the same language.

We live in a society that glorifies winners, but we are loathe to admit how much their/our success has to do with the fact that they/we haven’t been competing on a level playing field.  Most successful people have been born into comfort and opportunity, but I am hesitant to call this ‘privilege’ because a safe home, a good education and fair treatment by our fellow citizens should be a right, not a privilege.  As I read this book, I felt very keenly the painful fact that each human being has only one chance to find happiness in life.  We must all do more to make sure that everyone has the best possible opportunities to find fulfillment in their short time on earth.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the product of ten years of research.  Its author, Rebecca Skloot, becomes a prominent character in the story as she gets to know the Lacks family and shares with them the fruits of her research.  Members of the Lacks Family now run their own website.

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About Matthew Lie - Paehlke

Matthew Lie-Paehlke is a PhD student in Urban Planning at the University of Toronto.
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