The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover
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At a Glance

  • Rebecca Skloot examines the field of medical ethics in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, Henrietta's doctors took tissue samples of both her healthy and cancerous cells without obtaining permission or even informing her of their actions. Today, that would be illegal, and Skloot traces the various medical scandals that resulted in the reformulating of medical ethics.
  • Science is everywhere in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot explains how George Gey and his team grew HeLa cells in a lab, diagrams cell structures to explain HeLa cells to Henrietta's family, and recounts the curious history of scientists like Alexis Carrel, a Frenchman whose attempts to create an immortal cell line inspired the cult film The Blob about an immortal chicken heart that just keeps growing.
  • Family is one of the central themes of the book. Skloot traces Henrietta's personal history, using interviews conducted with her family members, who feature prominently in the book. Henrietta had five children: Lawrence, Elsie, Sonny, Deborah, and Joe a.k.a Zakariyya. After her death, her children struggled with loss, abuse, poverty, racism, and disrespect from the medical community; but the family stuck together through it all.

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Medical Ethics

Medical ethics is one of the central themes of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In the 1950s, when Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer, doctors and medical researchers were not required to obtain informed consent from their patients or subjects. Henrietta Lacks was never informed that her cells were harvested, and for many years her family was not informed, either, leaving them in the dark about her contribution to science. Rebecca Skloot traces the evolution of medical ethics in her book, describing how the field has changed since the 1950s. Several public scandals caused a shift in public opinion about medical research. One such scandal was that surrounding the work of Chester Southam, who injected cancer cells into subjects to test his hypothesis that researchers could get cancer from working with HeLa cells. When three Jewish doctors resigned in protest to Southam's study, comparing his methods to those of Nazis conducting experiments on Jews in the concentration camps, the media caught wind of the story and forced the entire medical profession to take notice. The National Institute of Health issued a set of regulations stating that all doctors, scientists, and researchers are required to obtain informed consent from their patients or subjects before conducting experiments or collecting tissue samples. This decision was too late to help the Lackses, however, and did not apply retroactively. The Lackses were not informed of any medical breakthroughs or new developments thanks to HeLa cells, nor did they know when their personal medical information was published (without their names) in a medical journal. In fact, when one of the researchers came to draw blood from the Lackses, the family was so confused about what was happening that they erroneously thought they were being tested for cancer; they awaited the results to no avail. Only now, decades later, are the Lackses in the loop about HeLa. The medical profession had to completely rethink its ethics in order for that to happen.


Cancer isn't the only disease represented in Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks . Cootie, for instance, contracted polio as a child and was only able to receive treatment because his doctors lied about his race, passing off his light skin as white in order to get him in an iron lung, which at that time was reserved for white patients. Sonny, Henrietta's son, underwent a quintuple bypass on his heart, which left him with $125,000 in medical bills. Zakariyya, Henrietta's youngest son, was a volunteer subject in many medical experiments until he began losing his sight and hearing; later in life he was admitted to an assisted living facility because of these conditions. Deborah suffered from stress-related...

(The entire section is 897 words.)