The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Context


Legacy of Slavery

The history of slavery and sharecropping figures prominently in Henrietta Lacks's childhood. Henrietta grew up in Clover, Virginia, in a "home-house"—a former slave cabin surrounded by shacks on a tobacco farm where her family worked. When Skloot visited Clover, it was still starkly separated into two parts: the immaculate white side and the rundown Lacks Town, populated mostly by African American people living in shacks and trailers, most of them related to Henrietta Lacks.

Like many children of sharecroppers and former slaves, Henrietta was shortchanged on education because her family needed her help in the fields. Yet, no matter how hard family members worked, they remained beset by poverty. Close family quarters meant children were exposed to sexual behavior at an early age, including contact between family members. This is the setting that leads to a sexual relationship between cousins, and later spouses, Henrietta and David "Day" Lacks.

The history of segregation also plays a significant part in Henrietta's story. When Henrietta lived in Turner Station, Maryland, in the 1940s and early 1950s, Jim Crow laws were still in effect. These were state and local laws enacted at the end of the 19th century that mandated segregation in public schools, on public transportation, and in other public places. Many hospitals simply refused to treat African American people, even if it meant they might die. The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where Henrietta Lacks was treated, was one of the few hospitals that admitted black people, but patients were treated in a special "Colored" section, with no private accommodations, and they were not permitted to enter other parts of the hospital. Even their blood was marked "Colored" and kept separate. Black people were discouraged from questioning doctors, especially white doctors, and medical terms went unexplained. Unsurprisingly, black people tended to avoid going to the doctor until the situation was urgent. Henrietta Lacks was no exception; she often was a no-show for her follow-up appointments.

Cell Research

The history of cell research is also an integral part of this book, from the beginnings of cancer research through the discovery of the polio vaccine and other vaccines and treatments, gene mapping using DNA, and cloning cells. Cells from Henrietta Lacks's body changed the course of cell-research history because they were the first immortal line of cells. Normally cells do not proliferate indefinitely, but the HeLa cells—so named because George Otto Gey, the first researcher to use them, always labeled samples with the first two letters of the patients' first and last names—were different. They mutated in a way that allowed them to avoid dying and instead continuee to undergo cell division indefinitely. Scientists began to observe the cells' behavior in various experiments. The cells have been instrumental in cancer research, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) research, gene-mapping, and many other studies. They have also led to breakthrough treatments such as the polio vaccine and in-vitro fertilization technology (the process by which human eggs are fertilized outside the body).

The Lacks family never received financial compensation for the HeLa cells, although labs that reproduce the cells continue to make millions from them. For a long time members of the Lacks family felt they should receive part of the profits, and scientists such as Christoph Lengauer agreed. However, the Lacks family did not want to try to withdraw the HeLa cells from production, as no amount of money was worth taking away the good that their mother's cells were doing for innumerable people.

Racism in Medical Research

Henrietta Lacks's case was hardly the first example of patients and their families being mistreated because of race. For many years white doctors and nurses offered only reluctant and insufficient care to African American patients. This approach was even more dangerous in medical research involving African Americans. Medical professionals often ignored matters of patient privacy, informed consent, and basic human decency.

One of the worst examples occurred at the same time scientists began culturing the HeLa cells on a mass scale. While African American scientists, many of them women, evaluated polio vaccines in one part of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, another study, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, took place on a different part of the campus, lasting from 1932 until 1972. Researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service promised—but did not provide—treatment to men who had the disease. When scientists discovered penicillin cured syphilis, the study subjects still received no treatment for their illness. Many of the study participants died during the 40-year study, believing their "treatment" hadn't worked.

The Nuremberg Code—developed during the 1947 trials of Nazi doctors who performed horrific experiments on Jewish people in concentration camps—states experiments must avoid "unnecessary physical and mental suffering," but the Tuskegee Study blatantly ignored this code. The Tuskegee Study researchers never received informed consent from their subjects either. The U.S. government finally stopped the experiment in 1972, offering apologies and health benefits to the widows and children of study participants. However, no benefits were offered to the Lacks family after they learned Henrietta Lacks's cells had launched a new era in medicine without her knowledge or consent.

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