The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Biography
Rating: 5/5

“Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.”

Many of you may not be familiar with the name Henrietta Lacks, but you may have heard of HeLa. HeLa are the cells that were taken from Henrietta Lacks without her consent and grown in a lab. Those cells played a vital role in creating a vaccine for polio and many discoveries that have led to treatments for cancer and other illnesses. The HeLa cells are still used in research labs across the world today and the hospital that stole them, John Hopkins, has profited greatly. However, Henrietta Lacks received no recognition for these cells and her family did not receive a cent of the profits that were gained. Her family was not even aware that her cells were taken until 20 years after Henrietta died. 

“Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment. And as Howard Jones once wrote, “Hopkins, with its large indigent black population, had no dearth of clinical material.”

In this book, Rebecca Skloot brings to light the experimentation on African Americans in the U.S. healthcare system in the 1950s. It was not uncommon during these times for doctors to experiment on African American patients without them knowing. Another great example of this is the Tuskegee Study where African American males were injected with syphilis without them knowing. Doctors had told them that they were being treated for having “bad blood” and instead injected nearly 400 men with syphilis. The doctors wanted to test what would happen if they were not given the treatment. Over 120 of the test subjects died and many passed it to their wives. 

I read this book for one of my classes at The University of Michigan not knowing anything about it. I had never heard of Henrietta Lacks so I didn’t know what to expect. This book opened my eyes and changed how I look at medical research. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was told from the perspective of the author Rebecca Skloot as she interviewed Henrietta’s living family members and community. The stories that they told about John Hopkins and other hospitals in the area were terrifying. Many community members were scared to even walk by the hospital because they had heard of people being kidnapped and tested on, many never being seen again. Hearing the stories from the point of view of the people that were affected by this the most makes it even more sickening. 

The book itself is meant to shed light on the fact that the U.S. healthcare system caters to the wealthy. Most of the people that were experimented on would never be able to afford the treatments that were discovered from their own bodies. Henrietta Lacks herself died of cancer, when the treatments discovered from her own cells could have helped her. Although many new laws have been put in place that prevent experimentation without consent, there is still a lack of affordable healthcare options. 

“She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks also displays how corrupt the John Hopkins hospital system was. Rather than giving a poor family recognition for providing the cells that created a new multimillion dollar industry of cell regeneration, they hid her name. To this day, the Lacks family still has not received a penny while John Hopkins became one of the most well known hospitals in the world. 

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