In recounting the story of Henrietta Lacks and her experience with the medical profession, Rebecca Skloot reveals the inhumane treatment experienced by African Americans in the course of their medical treatment, and she exposes the institutionalized racism that characterized the American healthcare system during the Jim Crow era. Henrietta was a poor African American woman undergoing treatment for cancer, and she was victimized by medical professionals who failed to involve her in decisions that affected her body and health. The attitude of the white, affluent doctors reflected their low opinion of her intelligence, which in turn reflected their belief that African Americans lacked intelligence in general. Henrietta Lacks was poor and under-educated, and she thus conformed to their stereotypical views. She was treated at a charity hospital in an exclusively black ward, as few hospitals during this time period admitted African Americans.
Henrietta’s victimization by the medical professionals continued after she died. They used her tissues for research and won awards for their achievements, but they failed to identify Henrietta as a person—they only referred to her as a specimen known as HeLa. She received no recognition for her contributions to medical science, and her family received no relief from their grief, as they never knew of her contributions or her significance to medical science. As African Americans, like Henrietta, they were treated as insignificant themselves.