The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Themes
by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Themes

The main themes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks include medical ethics, family, and race.

  • Medical ethics: In 1951, Henrietta's doctors took tissue samples of her cells without obtaining permission or even informing her. Today, this would be illegal, and Skloot traces the various medical scandals that resulted in the reformulating of medical ethics.
  • Family: While familial ties kept Henrietta’s children close, they did not spare Sonny, Deborah, and Joe from the abuse of Ethel, Henrietta’s cousin. 
  • Race: Many of the Lackses’ challenges in life can be linked to racism and systemic oppression, such as their inability to afford health insurance.

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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 heard 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 informed 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 illnesses, including erratic behavior and hives. She had multiple strokes due to stress and also had to move into an assisted living facility at the end of her life. Years after HeLa cells became ubiquitous in medical research, scientists discovered that Henrietta's cancer was caused by the recently-identified HPV virus. And then of course there's Henrietta's eldest daughter Elsie, who was born with epilepsy and mental handicaps. This preponderance of medical problems in one family reflects the fact that most of the Lackses did not have medical...

(The entire section is 890 words.)