Henrietta Lacks: Social Determinants of Health

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Henrietta Lacks life and health was affected by many social, economic and cultural determinants. These determinants made her and her family fall towards the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum and throughout the book we see how this causes her life to be much different than families on the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The ten social determinants mentioned in our lecture all relate to Henrietta’s life.

Social status is one of key categories of social determinants of health. Social status relates to Henrietta’s life in many ways. Social status forms socioeconomic status and we see that throughout Henrietta’s journey. She lacked a strong education, was unemployed and income wise she didn’t have much money. To get to John Hopkin’s hospital she had to drive approximately twenty miles. On top of that because she is a low income black women, and Telinde chose John Hopkins to start his study because he knew there would be many poor black women and as compensation for being part of the study, they would get free treatment services. If these people wanted treatments, they would be used for their research. If they didn’t want to be part of the research they wouldn’t be treated.

Social support or alienation is another key social determinant that we see in Henrietta’s life. Throughout the book we see Henrietta feel alienated through the events that occur. Firstly, when she is diagnosed with cancer she doesn’t want to tell her family. She has Day drive her back to John Hopkin’s for treatment. She doesn’t want to share this information with her family. Secondly with her older daughter, Elise, as Henrietta’s conditions were worsening the doctors told her that she wouldn’t be able to care for her needs. This made her feel alienated because Henrietta’s cousins stated that this day it felt like a piece of her had died and that she would never be the same again. (Skloot, pg.84, 2010)

With food Henrietta seemed to eat anything that was available and did not have access to food needed to meet proper dietary needs. This could have affected her health negatively because she was not getting the proper nutrients someone her age needed especially once she found out she had cancer. Even her housing situation put her and her family towards the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Henrietta lived with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks who lived on an old slave shack on a tobacco plantation with Day. Education wise she didn’t have much of it. She only had a middle-school education and without a proper degree it is hard to make a decent living. Because for her lack of education her work and job was to sell tobacco from her family’s plantation. Henrietta and her cousins would sometimes even sell tobacco for rich white farmers. The little money they would get from this would be used to go local movie theaters with her cousins.

Another social determinant that we see throughout the book is place or location that Henrietta and her family lived. I think this could also have had an affect on her health because she came from a rural area and rural areas are known to have less health services and less access to health services compared to people who live in more urban rich areas. Another issue with living in urban areas is that they may have access to more health services however they are more prone to air pollution. In Henrietta’s case she didn’t have access to health services that were near by. This connects to the social determinant, transportation because of the area Henrietta lived it took her about twenty miles to get to John Hopkin’s hospital. On top of that she isn’t able to drive herself so she has to rely on Day for example.

Stress is the last social determinant and I think that Henrietta feels stress throughout her entire life. Not only her but her entire family even after Henrietta died deals with stress. I think one example of stress in the book was how Henrietta was able to keep her cancer hidden from her family members in the beginning. She was stressed about them finding out. To add her family had to deal with the situation with the HeLa cells being used for research and her family not being informed about it.

I think Henrietta was subjected to structural inequalities. I think her being faced with structural inequalities is effected by the health disparities. Because of her low socioeconomic status, when Henrietta becomes sick her family was not informed by the use of her HeLa cells. The immorality involved in this situation I think is due to the fact the that Henrietta’s family is not that educated and the doctors could have assumed that they wouldn’t be educated to know what the use of her cells meant.

I also think because she is from a low income black family even if they were to educate her family the doctors did not care because they wouldn’t be able to take any legal action on the doctors and win. I think also because of the lack of treatment given to her while she was in the hospital caused her to contract gonorrhea. Going along with that I think her social status made her deal with something else. The treatments that she was given, she was not told that these treatments would cause her infertility. This is another thing she had to deal with and coincides with the fact that she would never be able to have children again.

Throughout this book the readers see how structural inequalities that come from society affect Henrietta and her family. These structural inequalities lead to health disparities and these disparities make it harder for Henrietta to receive the proper treatment she deserves.


  1. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.
  2. Riegelman, Ricahrd K., Brenda Kirkwood. Public Health 101: Healthy People-Healthy Populations. Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2015.

Cite this paper

Henrietta Lacks: Social Determinants of Health. (2021, Oct 03). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/henrietta-lacks-social-determinants-of-health/



How does Henrietta Lacks relate to public health?
Henrietta Lacks is important to public health because her cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line, which has been used in countless medical breakthroughs.
What is the message of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?
The story is about a woman named Henrietta Lacks, who had cervical cancer in the 1950s. Her cells were taken without her permission and used in scientific research, which led to many medical breakthroughs.
Why was Henrietta Lacks important to the medical field?
Henrietta Lacks was important to the medical field because her cells were used to create the first immortal human cell line, which has been used in medical research for over 60 years.
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