To begin, let’s go over the basics. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman of the 1920s who was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 31 years old. Cells from her tumor, known as HeLa cells, were taken without her consent and were discovered by researcher George Gey to grow and divide without limit thus making them “immortal.” This had a giant impact on the science and medical community, one that you most likely have benefitted from. The HeLa cells have been used to create the polio vaccine, aid in the understanding of cancer, cells, and HIV/AIDS, have been exposed to nuclear testing and toxins, have been to space, and are currently being used to grow viruses and test antitumor medicines. To put it shortly, the HeLa cells have done quite a lot! But for all this work… her family was left in the dark and they were not paid even a dime.
The book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot details how Henrietta’s daughter Deborah and the author Rebecca journey through understanding HeLa and Henrietta, as well as provides the reader with information about Henrietta’s life as a whole. What is important to note is that this most definitely is a race issue. Henrietta Lacks was mistreated by John Hopkins, mistreated by George Gey, mistreated by the companies that gained millions of dollars of her cells and the Lacks family is STILL mistreated as they have YET to receive compensation. The 1950s were not a pretty time racially, yes that I can admit. But there is no excuse as to why they have yet to be paid. Not one.
Reflecting on this makes me question my own beliefs, as I most definitely want to either go into medicine or into research, two key topics here. As a doctor, it would be my job to look after my patient with no bias, no matter what color, size, income, history, etc. As a researcher, I would need to equally understand that the end does not justify the means.
There is NO excuse for unethical behavior, even if the outcome is stupendous.
Can you imagine having such a large impact on the world and your family never knowing or receiving any benefits? That would be like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking and many more names I am sure we all recognize never being acknowledged for their contributions to society. But reading those names and matching them to faces… we all know the differences between them and Henrietta Lacks. I challenge you to look within yourself and determine whether or not something like this could happen today. Personally? I am absolutely positive it could. We have fixed a lot as a country in regards to racial issues but we still have so far to go.
I encourage you to read this book, you can get it on your apple device for $10.99 or in your nearest library! Or you can watch the movie, produced by HBO, which I will link below.