There’s nothing I love more than inspiring stories, science, and humanities/social justice topics. So, naturally, I loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot!

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Henrietta Lacks stands beautiful and radiant. (Credit: The Lacks Family)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks takes readers through two plots: the journey and life of Henrietta Lacks, and the adventure of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and Rebecca Skloot as they learn more about Henrietta for the book. Along the way, they learn about the science behind it all and the injustices done to Henrietta and the Lacks family.

Before I continue, I’m thinking you may want just a little background as to who these people are and why they are so important. First off, Henrietta Lacks may just be the most important woman in medical history…yet many people have never even heard her name before. If you’ve ever had a vaccine or treatment of any sort, odds are you’ve benefitted from Henrietta. Her cells, named HeLa cells, made that possible. Henrietta was a poor black woman born in 1920. She had cervical cancer, and cells from that cancer could survive and live outside of her body. This means that they reproduce infinitely in culture and could be used for countless experiments and research. HeLa cells have helped create treatments for AIDS and polio; they’ve been around the world, in nuclear bombs, and even in space. However, Henrietta didn’t willingly give her cells to science, they were taken from her without knowledge or consent. Not only that, but her family was never given any compensation and they were told nothing about it.

 

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Multiphoton fluorescence image of stained HeLa cells. (Credit: Tom Deerinck, National Institutes of Health)

 

Our class got to read the book and watch the movie, which, lucky for us, came out just in time! I personally liked the book better because the plot was easier to follow than it was in the movie. Although the acting in the movie was amazing (I LOVE Oprah and Reneé Elise Goldsberry!), the movie just didn’t include events and details from the book that I thought were important to the message and meaning of the story as a whole. That being said, the movie was very moving and I have to admit I did cry a couple of times.

 

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Henrietta and her husband, David. (Credit: The Lacks Family)

 

I want to say that merely reading the book is one thing, but learning from it is another. Reflecting on what Henrietta and the Lacks family went though is crucial to understanding their journey and being appreciative of their unknowing sacrifices. What if you were in Henrietta’s situation? What if people took your cells without your consent and others made an enormous profit off of them? What if, despite your contribution to science and the financial value of your cells, your family lived in poverty and was in need of medical care?

I know that I would feel betrayed and violated. Doctors are people you literally trust with your life, and to have them take your cells/tissues without consent is a complete violation of privacy and respect. I would also feel taken advantage of and used. However, if someone were to ASK for my cells, that would be a different story. Although some small part of me would probably want to sell them for profit, I know that I would donate them in the end. I would do this because it would help so many people, and knowing that my contribution helped countless others would completely outweigh the possible profit that I could have made. If I were to sell them, then they would go up in price and would be much less accessible to people who would need the benefits from them.

 

There is so much more I would like to say about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the ethical and social issues it brings up such as race relations, autonomy, and the undeniable connection between morality and science/technology. I highly recommend reading the book or watching the movie! There is so much to learn! We all owe it to Henrietta and her family to learn her story, empathize with all they have endured, and honor and appreciate her contributions that made modern science what it is today.

Here is the trailer for the movie!

 

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