Racism as Medical Malpractice: Henrietta Lacks’ Cells

Henrietta_Lacks_(1920-1951) (Source: Wikipedia)

Interesting article over at RaceWire (racewire.org) about the unbeknown and unrequited contributions of Henrietta Lacks to the field of science. In 1951, exactly 58 years ago yesterday, Mrs. Lacks died of cervical cancer. Just 3 years later, cells from her body were cultured at Johns Hopkins into the “HeLa cells” now used as the standard vaccination for the polio virus. The kicker? The cells from Lacks’ body were used without her consent, without her knowledge, and without any reparations to the Lacks family. As stated,

While the cells were commercialized early on, and have recently been used to create a whole new lucrative industry of gene mapping the family of Mrs Lacks has (of course) never been offered any part of the wealth. They have only been asked to contribute yet more cell and blood samples, ‘for the good of science.

And it was not until 2001 that Johns Hopkins scheduled an event to honor Lacks’ contribution and to thank her family. Unfortunately, the event never happened.

This reminds me of the countless Black men exploited by white scientists in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study of 1932 . This study, arguably the most despicable and atrocious example of state racism, eventually led to the 1979 Belmont Report, which is now standard operating procedure for scientific research with human subjects. However, the fact that the study continued under various supervisors until it was leaked to the press in 1970 bears testament to the enduring (white) logic of science and racism. In both Lacks’ case and the Tuskegee study, Black bodies were seen as expendable commodities by white researchers, who took advantage of their subjects and in the case of the Tuskegee study, ultimately killed them, their families and spouses.

As we have often argued on this blog before, American wealth and privilege has been born out of the sacrifices and injustices of people of color, particularly those of African Americans. It is striking how many Black Americans suffer from health inequality today despite their contributions to the very medical procedures and vaccines we now take for granted.

Why does the field of science proclaim objectivity in the face of such incontrovertible racism? Can we really tease out our sociocultural biases and prejudices when conducting scientific research?


  1. victor ray

    Hi all,
    For those interested, the book Medical Apartheid has a ton of information on medical racism. It basically argues that white health in the U.S. has in many cases been built on the bodies of people of color. It is a great, if horrific, book.

  2. PhilMorBru

    There are also incidents of indigenous people’s bodies being used for “science” without their knowledge or consent. The Havasu people in Arizona come to mind.

  3. I know I’ve made a similar post, but I wanted to share my experience as a black graduate science student at a major biological research institution in New York City. Dr. Feagin, the most interesting part from the SWPD blog post is the comment stream–over 100 comments, most of which are anecdotes from other black science students sharing their own experiences as science/research students. I was astonished by how ubiquitous to black science students was the experience of isolation, hostility and occasional episodes of overt racism. I don’t have statistics, but from my own experience and the experience of other black students across the country, there is a serious dearth (or downright absense) of blacks from scientific research faculty. There are major structural flaws in the scientific research body when it is almost unanimously White and Asian. What many blacks in science experience is really just rationalized implicit racism. Hence you get things like the American Eugenics movement and people like James Watson who can function as a distinguished and well-respected scientist amongst the vast majority of his colleagues for decades with little to no protest. And hence you also get drugs like BiDil and “logical” discussions about “third-world overpopulation”. The sad truth is that many blacks do not feel comfortable in scientific programs and this is a huge detriment to biomedical research nationwide. I invite you and your readers to read the comment stream from the SWPD blog post. It certainly opened my eyes.

  4. Sioux7

    No Longer Human!

    Helacyton gartleriHeLa cells
    Scientific classification
    Kingdom: incertae sedis
    Phylum: incertae sedis
    Class: incertae sedis
    Order: incertae sedis
    Family: Helacytidae
    Genus: Helacyton
    Species: H. gartleri
    Binomial name
    Helacyton gartleri
    Leigh Van Valen

    Due to their ability to replicate indefinitely, and their non-human number of chromosomes, HeLa was described by Leigh Van Valen as an example of the contemporary creation of a new species, Helacyton gartleri. The species was named after Stanley M. Gartler, whom Van Valen credits with discovering “the remarkable success of this species.”[14] His argument for speciation depends on three points:

    The chromosomal incompatibility of HeLa cells with humans.
    The ecological niche of HeLa cells.
    Their ability to persist and expand well beyond the desires of human cultivators.
    This definition has not been followed by others in the scientific community, nor, indeed, has it been widely noted.[citation needed]

    As well as proposing a new species for HeLa cells, Van Valen proposes in the same paper the new family Helacytidae and the genus Helacyton.[14] Recognition of Van Valen and Maiorana’s names, however, renders Homo and Hominidae paraphyletic because Helacyton gartleri is most closely related to Homo sapiens.


  1. Racism and Health: Henrietta Lacks Revisited :: racismreview.com

Leave a Reply