The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Questions and Answers
by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover
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What does the term "a miserable specimen" by Henrietta's doctors reveal about their attitudes toward her in The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks?

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The term has double meaning.  When doctors wrote it, they were referring to how sick she was.  However, it ironically also refers to the quality of what happened to her—she became a specimen, immortalized and anonymous at the same time.

The doctors are referring to Henrietta’s illness, but not in a way that is at all sympathetic.  It is at times clinical and at times insensitive.

“…Henrietta is still a miserable specimen” they wrote, “She groans.  She is completely nauseated and claims she vomits everything she eats.  Patient acutely upset….” (ch 8, p. 66)

The doctors did not believe her when she told them she was not cured.  They just sent her home.  She was just a poor black woman to them.

Henrietta Lacks’s doctors saw her as nothing more than a specimen in a lab.  They also considered her less of a person because she was black.

For some reason, Henrietta’s cells were different. They survived and reproduced indefinitely in a tissue culture, becoming a cell line scientists named HeLa. (enotes prologue summary)

Doctors essentially stole cells from Henrietta’s body before she died of cancer.  The cells were used to study cancer and develop drugs to treat it.  But Henrietta was never given a choice.  By coincidence, her cells turned out to be very valuable.


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