Henrietta Lacks was a black woman from Baltimore who died of an aggressive cervical cancer in the 1950s. During her treatment at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins (a free hospital for blacks) and after her death, her malignant cells were taken by hospital researchers without her or her family’s consent. Researchers (not just there but everywhere) were struggling to find cells that could reproduce in a petri dish, so they would regularly take them from patients. At a free hospital for black people, especially, doctors probably felt like it was a fair exchange for the treatment they were giving away.
Lacks’ cells turned out to be strangely, powerfully robust. They thrived, and grew overwhelmingly quickly. When researchers realized what they had on their hands, they started sharing and manufacturing her cells for countless numbers of experiments â€” producing vaccines, testing cancer therapies and new drugs of all kinds, all kinds of medical procedures. All the while, the family never knew her cells were taken. The production and sale of her cells has generated millions of dollars â€” billions, if you count the revenue from popular drugs and advances that could only have been developed using her cells. Even so, the Lacks family has never seen a penny in royalties or compensation; most members can’t afford healthcare.
Reading a book like this reveals to you the full extent of what a paternalistic, racist past the medical system has in its closet â€” just think of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. (It’s worth noting that when HeLa was first commercially manufactured for sale to other researchers, it was done at Tuskegee as well.)
The Immortal Life isn’t merely a science book about medical ethics. It’s about race relations, how to right a wrong, and about how a woman’s short life became bigger, much more significant after life; a tribute to someone whose legacy is mostly known not by her full name, but a test-tube label abbreviation of it.
Radiolab (aka the greatest radio show in the world) aired a great doc by Skloot before the book came out.
An old video from the ’50s about HeLa: