The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot produces many different themes. Many of which continue to play a big role in today’s society. Throughout the novel, the author reveals the story of a woman who shook the scientific world with just her cells. Even today, her cells’ influence is still felt in medical research. However useful these cells are, obtaining them was very controversial. After reading the book, the main themes that stuck out in my mind are racism and ethics in medicine.
Henrietta Lacks was born into a poor tobacco farming family in 1920. She lived a modest life up until around 1950. She then went to Johns Hopkins Hospital where she was diagnosed with cancer. Unknowingly, Henrietta had a sample of her tumor and other cells taken from her during her stay at Johns Hopkins. She repeatedly returned for radiation treatment but her condition only worsened. The cancer spread throughout her body and she died just 10 months after her first visit. She was buried in an unmarked grave and the lacks family resumed their lives thinking that Henrietta was dead. However, in a lab at Johns Hopkins her cells lived on and were growing at a rapid rate.
The fact the Henrietta was forced to go to Johns Hopkins to receive treatment in the first place shows how segregation played a prevalent role in her life. She was forced to drive all the way to the hospital because it was the only one in the area who treated black patients. The hospital sometimes felt that because they were not receiving any compensation for their work, that they would just take samples from patients without their written consent. Henrietta’s case was one of these occurrences. The Lacks family was not even made aware of the cells until 20 years after her death and while others were making millions off them, the family saw none of the profits. They were denied access to information about the cells because of their race and because the hospital knew that what they were doing was wrong.
Henrietta’s cells, aka HeLa, were the foundation for numerous vaccines and research projects dealing with viruses and disease. They were also the groundwork for many court cases involving rights for patients and consent laws. The hospitals now have to notify all patients of anything involving their bodies. After Henrietta, people started realizing they could make money off of their cells if they could make them reproduce efficiently. This was a key characteristic of the HeLa cell line. However, no one really found the same success that the HeLa strain had experienced. Even today the cells have been estimated to weigh over 20 tons worldwide.
Henrietta Lacks gave the world a great tool for medical experimentation along with rights and justice for many more. Her cells have become a worldwide phenomenon and Rebecca Skloot’s novel gives the Lacks family what they truly deserve. It is a truly inspirational story that sheds light on a rather dark subject. Even though Henrietta Lacks will never know about her gift to the world, HeLa will continue to grow. To those who knew her and for the Millions she has unknowingly given to, she will never be forgotten.