Henrietta Lacks: Indeed, Immortal

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In Rebecca Scloot’s nonfiction biography, Scloot confronts the reader with the idea of racism, sexism, legal issues, and social status, in the medical field during the 1950s. She illustrates this idea by giving us the story of Henrietta Lacks, who was misinformed that her cells had been taken to grow inside a laboratory. Through the eyes of Rebecca Scloot, we take a look at Henrietta’s family living in the present and how she still affects them in the present. Science journalist Rebecca Skloot teaches us the story behind the first immortal human cells, known as the HeLa cells.

Skloot had gained interest in these cells when she was in a biology class. Her professor mentioned that what scientists know about cancer cells came from studying the cells of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. He went on to state that Henrietta died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951. Without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent, samples of her tumor were taken and sent to a Lab where Gregory Gey looked after them while they continued to duplicate. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in order to study them, and they had had no luck, but Henrietta’s cancer cells not only lived, but they also reproduced rapidly. HeLa cells continued to reproduce, dividing constantly and indefinitely; hence, they are ‘immortal.’ It is said that if one were to weigh all of Henrietta’s cells that have been grown since she died, the total would be 50 million metric tons.

Scloot also talks about racism and how that played a big part in Henrietta’s journey. The patients were easily mistreated because of the time period they were in. In the 1950s the Jim Crow laws were in full force and it would have been considered okay for this to happen. I do think that racism could have been a reason for her being misdiagnosed but I feel that it could have also been how little the doctors knew about different types of cervical cancer. At the beginning of reading the book, I thought that it was going to be solemnly based on medicine because of how the HeLa cells have contributed to multiple advances in the medical industry.

Those include in-vitro fertilization, gene mapping, polio vaccine, and chemotherapy. She also brings up an example of an instance where a surgeon by the name of Alexis Carrel claimed to had made immortal chicken heart cells but by the suspicion of Leonard Hayflick, we found out it was all fake. This part of the book teaches us that ‘normal cells can only divide a finite number of times before dying.'( 61) Now that I have read the whole story I believe that the big idea is culture because the sort of treatment Henrietta got most likely would have been looked passed and considered normal. Scloot does bring up multiple other issues but I viewed the book as being about how the culture was in her time.

Scloot also includes the topic of the legal aspect of medicine. Doctors would often use patients in the public wards for research. Usually without their knowledge. ‘Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment.’ ( 60 ) Hopkins, the hospital Henrietta was being treated at, had a large population of poor black patients. It was also said that it was common for doctors to not tell their patients key information and sometimes not even diagnose them. I think that this is a legal issue because the patient should know about everything that is going on with themselves. This was very eye-opening to me when I read this fact. It would be scary to me if a doctor was not telling me if I was severely sick. I think that this situation could not happen in the current day because everything doctors do now is documented. There would be jail time involved with taking someone’s cells without permission.

Overall, I was fascinated by the story of Henrietta and her cells. It brought up some topics about medicine that I would have never considered. This book taught me the history of how medicine used to be and how much we have advanced legally and as a study. I love how Scloot mixed her curiosity with the full story about Henrietta Lacks. It truly brought the whole book together and made it more interesting to read. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone who wants to know more about the inside of the medical world.

Cite this paper

Henrietta Lacks: Indeed, Immortal. (2021, Oct 03). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/henrietta-lacks-indeed-immortal/

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