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?