The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Rebacca Skloot

After I read this book, I got this feeling of “wow” and you really think back about the contents and things mentioned in the book. 

Perhaps this book reminds me that I have to be grateful to the medicine or medical research that has given me and my family the benefits of a healthier life. And also I must say “Thank you” to this lady Henrietta Lacks. I think in a way or other, we owned a big “Thank you” to Henrietta Lacks due to her cells being used worldwide for medical experiments.

I am also very impressed with the author Rebacca Skloot. She tooks many years to gather the information – one date i saw Sep 11,2001… way before that date she was already gathering information. The book was only published in 2010. To be able to gather such information over such a long period of time, it requires patience and a strong passion and belief in order to be able to do that. Maybe at times, she may have suspected whether the book can be published. I am also grateful to her for bringing such a story to print.

The cells from Henrietta’s tumor (Cervival cancer) were given to researcher George Gey, who “discovered that her cells did something he has never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow.

Gey named the sample “Hela”, after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks’ name, to protect her identity. As the first human cells that could be grown in a lab and were “immortal” (did not die after a few cell divisions), they could then be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research.

Henrietta’ family were kept in the dark about her cells immortality use. Even more than 20 years after her death, scientists were investigating the “Hela” cells using her husband and children in research without informed consent. They just tell them it is for the benefit of checking that the children had no cancer like their mum.

Even though Henrietta’s cells resulted in multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials and also aid in several medical experiement, the family lived in poverty, ill health and never saw any of the profits.

I am quite disturbed by some areas of the book – in which the author wrote about the experimentation on African Americans, prisoners, birth of bioethics and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

There was one section of the book in which it was mentioned about this doctor (virologist) Chester Southam. He choose the Ohio prison because its inmates had cooperated in several other studies without resistance, including one in which they’d been infected with a potentially deadly disease called tularemia. At that point of time, prisoners nationwide were being used for research of all kinds – from testing chemical warfare agents to determining how X-raying testicles affected sperm count. Southam even intructed his staff to give injections without telling patients the injections contained cancer cell.  He said he didnt tell the patients because he didn’t want to cause unnecessary fear.

Many many years ago, doctors tested drugs on slaves and operated on them to develop new surgical techniques, often without using anesthesia. In the 1900s, John Hopkins hospital was ” known” for experimenting on black folks. (kidnapped them for experiments) . There were tales of “night doctors” who kidnapped black people for reearch. And there were disturbing truths behind those stories.

Just imagine if Henrietta’s cells were not “immortal” and cant be used for medical experiement purposes, then perhaps more people may unknowingly suffered at the hands of doctors who instead of treating their illnesses, were using them as medical experiments.

From this book, I realised that people are vulnerable. And in most cases, if people can take advantage or exploit you, they will do so. Unless you voice it out. Due to racial discrimination and ignorance, doctors and scientists were using black people and prisoners for their medical experiments, injecting them with unknown viruses. Even for white people or others, you also do not know what the doctors treat you with. Although there are many so called rules – ethics and laws, but I find that it is quite a grey area in such things.

Even for Henrietta’s children, they were very young when their mother passed away. The children did suffered a lot through abuse by others and such abuse may have affected them even throughout their adulthood. Even the male cousin try to rape and sexually harassed the vulnerable female children.


Wasn’t it illegal for doctors to take Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge? Don’t doctors have to tell you when they use your cells in research? The answer is no – not in 1951 and not in 2009, when this book went to press.

It is not as if scientists are stealing your arm or some vital organ. They’re using tissue scraps you parted with voluntarily.

Well, personally I do believe that doctors should seek consent for taking your cells for research. However, it will be drastic if it involved monetary returns or some rights to use cells.  I mean, just imagine if everybody can track their cells which are used for experiments or certain medical puposes, then they can start to extort money from the scientists, doctors, medical institutions either by suing or threatening to sue. There is no real value created for the society. The only purpose is to make money by sueing people.

If I am in the position of Henrietta Lacks, I believe that the doctor should ask my consent, my family consent for the cell use. If the cells are able to help many people worldwide, then perhaps my health will have served a bigger purpose that God has intended for me to do so. But if a patent or right (money) charged for the cell used, then it will be quite sad for mankind to reach that stage. 

This area of bioethics remind me of the book “The Pirates Dilemma” in which many new products and breakthrough were created by modding on older version of things. You can read it here  for more information.

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