Background of Story
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a true story of a poor, Southern African-American tobacco farmer who died in 1951 at the very young age of 31 years old from cervical cancer. Little did she know that cells harvested from her tumor, which were obtained without her consent have lived on and on and became one of the most important tools in medicine today. Despite Henrietta’s story being full of legal and ethical issues, the story was one filled with success and anguish. Success for science as her cells served as advancement in medical research and development; yet was sorrowful for Henrietta and her family. This story occurred during a time of segregation in the United States, when Henrietta Lacks believed she was receiving the best possible treatment for her illness. Unfortunately, at this point in time doctors believed radium treated cancer, which we know today can actually increase the risk for cancer and cell research was just beginning in medicine. The journey of Henrietta started with her medical treatment occurring on a “colored” ward at John Hopkins Hospital in the 1950’s and ending in a white laboratory where freezers sit full of HeLa cells; now today, her children and grandchildren live in East Baltimore and still struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s tumor cells were taken from her body and given to a scientist named George Gey. Her cells were the first to live and grow outside of the body for an extended period of time, and they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. The name adopted was HeLa cell, yet Henrietta Lacks remains essentially unknown and is buried at an unmarked grave site next to her mother. These cells were vital in developing a vaccine for polio, uncovering secrets of cancer, and a variety of viruses, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping and cloning along with countless other discoveries throughout a 20 year span. As success followed, the HeLa cells became a profitable business for many scientists and companies would sell, trade and exchange billions of dollars’ worth of cells. This was all unbeknown to Henrietta’s family and little did they know their mother, wife, grandmother and aunt would go on to make history with her HeLa cells. Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death. It sounds like a great benefit, especially for the population to benefit from the research and treatment available through the discovery of these cells. Conversely, Henrietta’s family was not aware and the question rises if they should have been treated differently, with some degree of dignity and respect?
Surprisingly, it took until the 1970’s before her family ever uncovered Henrietta’s cells were taken, which was the time when reporters started trying to find out who “HeLa” was and then scientists were using Henrietta’s husband and children in research without informed consent. The family was...