Racism and Health: Henrietta Lacks Revisited

The life of Henrietta Lacks is the subject of a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.   Ms. Lacks is a notable historical figure for her unwitting “donation” of her cells to scientific study.   David Strohecker wrote about Ms. Lacks’ here back in October, around the 50th anniversary of her death from cervical cancer.  Dwight Garner gives Skloot’s new book a rave review in The New York Times (hat tip: Jessica in Austin), and here’s a longish clip from that review:

“The woman who provides this book its title, Henrietta Lacks, was a poor and largely illiterate Virginia tobacco farmer, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves. Born in 1920, she died from an aggressive cervical cancer at 31, leaving behind five children. No obituaries of Mrs. Lacks appeared in newspapers. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lacks’s cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming “immortal” and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, ‘trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.’ Laid end to end, the world’s HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times.

Because HeLa cells reproduced with what the author calls a ‘mythological intensity,’ they could be used in test after test. ‘They helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization,’ Ms. Skloot writes. HeLa cells were used to learn how nuclear bombs affect humans, and to study herpes, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and AIDS. They were sent up in the first space missions, to see what becomes of human cells in zero gravity.

Bought and sold and shipped around the world for decades, HeLa cells are famous to science students everywhere. But little has been known, until now, about the unwitting donor of these cells. Mrs. Lacks’s own family did not know that her cells had become famous (and that people had grown wealthy from marketing them) until more than two decades after her death, after scientists had begun to take blood from her surviving family members, without their informed consent, in order to better study HeLa.

Ms. Skloot tells the story of Mrs. Lacks’s life, from those tobacco fields in small-town Clover, Va., to the ‘colored’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in the 1950s, where she was treated for her cancer, and where her cells were harvested. She follows the members of Mrs. Lacks’s family to East Baltimore, where many of them live today, still struggling with her complicated legacy. As one of Mrs. Lacks’s sons says: ‘She’s the most important person in the world, and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?

Ms. Skloot writes with particular sensitivity and grace about the history of race and medicine in America. Black oral history, she points out, is full of stories about ‘night doctors,’ men who could pluck black patients off the streets to experiment on their bodies. There was some truth behind those tales.”

While I’m glad that Ms. Lacks’ story is getting the attention it deserves in this new book, it would be mistake to regard this compelling narrative as an anomaly in U.S. history.   Rather, the experience of Ms. Lacks and her descendants is in many ways an archetypal story about racism and health in the U.S., as Harriet Washington documents in her thoroughly researched book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.


  1. marandaNJ

    I heard about this book on National Public Radio. Echoes of Nazi Germany right here in River City.
    I have noticed that black Americans have historically been used to understand and study all kinds of medical conditions without being informed of the nature of these proceedings. Black people have even been taken from grave sites without the permission of relatives so medical students could study cadavers. Unbelievable and shameful. The following book may interest others who are interested in how America has covered up similar Lethal human experimentation.

    The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War is a 1999 book by Eileen Welsome. It is a history of U.S. government-engineered radiation experiments on unwitting Americans, based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning series Welsome wrote for the Albuquerque Tribune.[1][2]

    The purpose of the experiments was to assess the effect of radioactivity on the human body. For example, between April 1945 and July 1947, 18 people were injected with plutonium by doctors associated with the Manhattan Project. None of these men, women, and children were told what was being done, and none gave informed consent. Most of the subjects, Welsome writes, “were the poor, the powerless, and the sick — the very people who count most on the government to protect them”.[3]

    These medical experiments were covered up for 40 years. When they became public, the government apologized but not a single doctor or hospital was publicly blamed.[3]

  2. Jessica

    Having just finished the book a week or two ago, I have to say there’s sort of a creepy white savior tone to the whole thing – I’m sure this probably largely is due to the author/reporter being a white woman. In retrospect, there are a lot of references to the fact that the Lackses are poorly educated and (some of them) violent, adding to the savior bit since Skloot can help them read jargon-filled medical documents and eventually gets an affectionate hug from the violent older Lacks son. The author says the Lackses’ initial hesitation to talk to her probably comes from years of awful treatment at the hands of white reporters, but mostly ends up reducing their behavior to that of annoyance since it made it difficult for her to pursue the story. It has sort of a creepy Capote “In Cold Blood” backstory vibe to it – the reporter pretending to have the best interest of the subject at heart, but is really just interested in some sort of clean end for her novel.

    But something definitely worth reading for the bits about racist medical practices and patients’ rights issues, though the latter ends up being the main focus of the book. One of the most interesting facts mentioned in the book is that HeLa cell production was initially done at Tuskegee University (then, the only black medical school) as a way to create jobs for black men and women in the medical field. But a white entrepreneur and a his white doctor friend started mass producing the cells and eventually ran the Tuskegee production line out of business.

  3. marandaNJ

    White people frequently do beneficial things for African Americans to benefit Themselves. Hence the white savior meme.Skloot is just trying to garner publicity because it’s been’in vogue’ for years within the Pulitzer Club
    to write books about racism. The only people that can really understand the black experience is black people themselves. That’s why many books written about this experience by surreptitious white sycophants to the black civil rights meme should be discredited and ignored.
    How can you participate in the farce of true comprehension of what it’s like to be black, if in fact you’re born within the white racial frame? You can’t. And if you tread upon this shakey sand, you will be sucked in deeper. Into the quick sand of confusion.


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