Why was the Tuskegee Institution mentioned in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The association between the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama and the plot ofThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lackscan be summarized in three words: unethical medical practices.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacksnarrates the true story of how the cervical cancer cells of John Hopkins University hospital patient Henrietta Lacks were extracted and used for medical research without her being informed, nor with her consent. Henrietta had a singularity in her cancer cells: they grew at a faster rate than it had ever been witnessed by the scientific community  before. Most cells die after reproducing. Henrietta's did the exact opposite. This deemed the cells "immortal".

Dr. George Gey discovered the cells and gave them out to other scientists in order to aid in the research of vaccines. The cells were given the name "HeLa" cells, after Henrietta Lacks's name.The growth (spread) of the cells was used in the study of the most common diseases of the 20th century, from cancer to AIDS, and even sexually transmitted diseases. Hence, Henrietta's cells aided in the creation of the "vaccine and medication empires" worth billions of dollars among pharmaceutical groups.

Yet...she was never told. In fact, after her death, her family fell through the cracks of the social system like many other poor, black families in the 1950s. However, as with many other ethically controversial topics: what matters most, the purpose, or the means to achieve it?

In comes the Tuskegee comparison. From 1932 until 1972 the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, under the guidance and with the permission of the United States Public Health Service, used poor, black sharecroppers from Alabama as test subjects to study the progression of syphilis. Unethically, the men were told that they would be treated for "bad blood". In reality, they were not even being treated! In fact, the government was eagerly collecting samples and data from their decaying bodies so that, after their deaths, their autopsies would provide even more information about the tertiary stage of this disease. Even when there was penicillin available, the men were denied the medicine for the purpose of research.

Here we see two similarities: one, that the test subjects were not informed prior to being exposed to an intervention or treatment. That, alone, is a crass example of poor ethics. Second, that the patient was not important at all, and more importance was given to the benefit that could be acquired from their diseases. The medical code of conduct of "First, do no harm" is completely disregarded in the cases of Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee experiments. Moreover, questions can also arise from the fact that, coincidentally, all test subjects were lower-class and African American patients.

 

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