In 1951, one woman’s misfortune became the ultimate breakthrough and lead to a huge discovery in science. Henrietta Lacks was a lower class African-American woman living in Baltimore, Maryland at the time. She had been suffering from a “knot in her womb” that caused her to experience grave pain. In the 1950’s, a time when hospitals turned away lower class African American patients away, they had access to receive free treatment from the public ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Although doctors there agreed to examine these patients, it is questionable how thorough and genuine they were throughout the examination. In 1950, Henrietta gave birth to her youngest daughter Deborah, and by January of 1951 she had a full-blown cancerous tumor in her cervix that no doctor previously noticed.
Many of the doctors at Hopkins had the same ideology; if patients were treated for free in the public ward, then it was fair to use them for research as a form of payment. Unbeknownst to Henrietta, her doctor took a sample of her cancerous cervical cells and passed then onto a Dr. George Gey without hesitation. Dr. Gey had attempted to grow human cells outside of the body for years. It was not until he came across Henrietta’s miraculous cells that he found success. The famously named HeLa cells grew like wild fire in culture and Dr. Gey was able to distribute them globally.
Rebecca Skloot, a science journalist and the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, found interest in the HeLa cell story from a young age. She was determined to find out able the woman behind the cells. Skloot wanted to know who HeLa was and about her story. Skloot writes the novel in an intriguing way, bouncing back and forth between Henrietta’s family’s experiences coming from a struggling tobacco farm, with the scientific discoveries that HeLa cells enabled simultaneously. She allows the reader to form strong ethical opinions on whether or not Gey and the scientific world of geneticists and cell culturists should be allowed to take Henrietta’s cells without her consent, or without the consent of her surviving family.
Skloot’s determination to track down the Lacks family is insurmountable as she goes where no researcher has ever gone before. She is able to talk to Henrietta’s husband, Day, see Henrietta’s grave, and even eat pork chops with Henrietta’s sons. Skloot does a phenomenal job trying to put a human figure behind HeLa cells and actually treat that person with respect, as opposed to an inanimate object that science made her become.
As the reader delves deeper into the text, it is evident that the Lacks family lacks trust in medicine as a result of Henrietta’s cells being multiplied without anyone’s consent. Day’s health is subpar and he should get his toes amputated to improve his wellbeing. He refuses to let any doctor cut into him like they did to Henrietta. His son, Sonny, carries these same feelings about doctors and thus refuses to get a needed angioplasty. The long term...