The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 2, Chapter 17 : Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable (1954–1966) | Summary



Skloot informs readers that HeLa cells were used in ways both noble and ignoble. Chester Southam, a virologist, decided to inject the cancer cells into people who already had cancer to see if they would contract cervical cancer as well. When patients developed tumors, Southam removed some of them but left others in place so he could study them. Some patients' tumors grew back, and some even suffered metastasis of the HeLa cancer. Southam never told patients he was injecting them with cancer cells; instead he said he was testing their immune system. No one gave informed consent. Southam also injected the cells into healthy prisoners who volunteered for his study—again, not knowing Southam was injecting cancer cells. He did the same with gynecological surgery patients. All told, he used more than 600 people in his experiments.

Southam tried to get three doctors at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital to inject their patients with HeLa, but they refused, horrified he was breaking the Nuremberg Code, guidelines developed after the Nazi experiments on prisoners during World War II. These guidelines state that doctors must strive to avoid harm to patients at all costs and must obtain informed consent. Southam got a resident to do the job for him; the three doctors resigned and sued Southam. In 1965 Southam and his colleagues were found guilty of deceit, fraud, and unprofessional conduct. The case helped spur the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create strict guidelines for research including informed consent.


The Nuremberg Code, while not law, was an important guideline in medical research. Southam clearly broke the code. His use of HeLa cells in some ways paralleled the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Tuskegee study involved rounding up black men with syphilis and telling them they were being treated for it, but not doing so; the scientists wanted to observe syphilis as it destroyed the body. Southam wanted to observe cancer in action, in patients with compromised immune systems as well as in healthy patients, and he never informed his study participants about what he was doing. Other scientists did similar things, but Southam got caught.

Using prisoners for such studies is also an example of exploiting vulnerable populations, such as poor people and people of color. The prison population contains a disproportionately large number of both.

Scientists were in an uproar about the NIH's new guidelines. They feared research would be impossible if they couldn't lie to their subjects. Research continued, though, and people volunteered and signed consent forms, knowing what they were getting into. HeLa cells helped put those new ethical guidelines in place.

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