portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

Start Free Trial

How has the HeLa Cells reflected the scientific method now and in the 1950s?

How has the HeLa Cells reflected the way the scientific method works now in the present then as it did in the 1950's?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main thing that stands out to me is not so much the formal Scientific Method as used in science fair projects as the moral question of scientific ethics.  After all, Henrietta and her family were severely misused. 

[The] Lacks family was not informed about HeLa until almost 25 years after Henrietta’s death, and they were shocked to find out that the cells were now being sold for profit.  (enotes)

Did her family know what was going on?  Were they fairly compensated?  NO!  This is a reason for medical and research ethics, in my opinion.  Henrietta’s is one of the most important factors in genetic research, and she was sorely used.  This is a case of racism and classism, pure and simple.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is an awkward question because what the Scientific Method is and what the scientific community does are two very different things. The steps of the Scientific Method are:

  • Ask a Question
  • Do Background Research
  • Construct a Hypothesis
  • Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
  • Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
  • Communicate Your Results (sciencebuddies.org)

What was done in the 1950s relating to Henrietta Lacks' "immortal" cells was a question of scientific ethics--and was not very ethical--in a simpler society when questions of patient/donor/subject ethics had not been addressed. I don't mean "simpler" as having less need for ethical guidelines; I mean "simpler" in terms of less research and fewer regulatory guidelines.

Today, there are guidelines in place that require informed consent from the patient/donor/subject themselves or from a legally qualified surviving family member. So, in brief, what Dr. Gey did at John Hopkins in 1951, through the action of Mrs. Lacks' surgeon, could never be done today. Taking a portion of a biopsy and "sending it down the hall" to a research department so a scientific researcher could try again to create a successful line of self-reproducing cells could never legally happen today because scientific and medical ethics and regulatory laws prohibit all of those at every step of their progress.

The HeLa story, broken by journalist Rebecca Skloot and Mrs. Lacks' daughter Deborah, reflects the changes in ethical practice and regulation that have taken place since the 1950s. Bear in mind, Lacks' situation was not the only gross violation of ethical and moral behavior among scientific and medical researchers that occurred in the 1950s. Many cases of non-consenting medical experimentation from that period of time have come into public knowledge.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial