In the 1950s doctors didn’t have to ask for consent and the patients just did what their doctors told them to do no questions asked. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells a true story about a 31 year old African American woman that had her cells taken by doctors without her consent and didn’t get recognized for the contribution her cells made until later on when her family found out what the doctors had done.
It was no surprise that the doctors and scientists at Johns Hopkins hospital studied on African American patients without their knowledge. There were even tales of doctors who would kidnap black folks off the street at night and do awful treatments and experiment on them. Henrietta never thought a part of her would be the next test subject when she went to Johns Hopkins on January 29, 1951 for a painful “knot on her womb.” When Henrietta was at the hospital for the check up her doctor, Dr. Howard W. Jones took a sample of the lump on her cervix and sent it to a lab for a diagnosis. Dr. Jones and a colleague, Telinde, were studying two cervical cancers and came to a conclusion that “62 percent of woman with invasive cancer who’d had earlier biopsies first had carcinoma in situ.”
In order to study the research they needed samples of women’s cervix tissue. Telinde gave some samples of the patient’s tissue to Gregory Gey who was more than happy to take them because he wanted to be the first person to make cells stay alive out of the body. Gey and his assistants would cut up cells and put them in culture every day. They didn’t make much progress because the cells would just keep on dying and it would go on like this until the day Mary Kubicek divided HeLa cells and cultured them. Henrietta’s cells (HeLa) didn’t die. They kept growing and growing while Henrietta Lacks body kept dying and dying.
On October 4, 1951, Henrietta died of a strain of cervical cancer. George Gey wanted to examine the body of the incredible HeLa cells but he had to ask
the immediate family to do an autopsy. Henrietta’s husband David “Day” Lacks was called and asked for permission. He said no but later changed his mind because the hospital said, “They wanted to run some test that might help his children,” so Day agreed. You might wonder why Johns Hopkins and George Gey asked to do an autopsy but didn’t ask to take some of Henrietta’s tissue. Well, there was a law that it was illegal to perform autopsies without families’ permission. On the other hand, there were no laws or requirement get permission to take tissue samples.
Gey used the tissue he got from the autopsy to process more HeLa and give it away to other scientists, researchers, and doctors. Doctors like Southam used the HeLa to inject it in cancer patients to see how it would react. The patient’s cancer got aggressive or they got other cancers. Southam injected HeLa into more than six hundred people. Southam didn’t tell the patients what he was injecting them with. He would just say he was testing them for cancer.
Southam would say “to use the dreaded word ‘cancer’ in connection with any clinical procedure on an ill person is potentially delirious to that patient’s well being, because it may suggest to him (rightly or wrongly) that his diagnosis is cancer or that his prognosis is poor…to withhold such emotionally disturbing but medically no pertinent detail…is in best tradition of responsible clinical practice.” Southam was finely put to a stop when he was put on a one year probation for doing experiments similar to what experiments the Nazis did on Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust.
As HeLa got popular, people wanted to put a name and identity to the cells. People started asking who was HeLa. A reporter named Bill Davidson from Collier’s magazine interviewed Gey and published an article in 1954 about HeLa. The article said the woman behind the cells was named Helen Lane, and she was at Johns Hopkins for cancer of the cervix. The article stated they took a sample of her cells after she died. What the article didn’t say was that the real person behind HeLa was Henrietta Lacks, and they did not take her sample after death or with permission. Shortly after Gey’s death in 1970, some people at Johns Hopkins wrote an article on George Gey’s achievements with HeLa. The article identified Henrietta Lacks as HeLa.
An employee from the National Cancer Institute who worked with HeLa every day told Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s oldest son, and his wife about Henrietta’s cells and how they’re big in the news. Lawrence’s wife went home and told the family about doctors keeping some of Henrietta’s tissue, and that’s how the Lacks family found out about Henrietta’s cells; not by a phone call from the many doctors who experimented with HeLa, nor from the hospital that took her cells.
Something sample as asking for your patient to sign a consent form and tell them whats your doing with there body The family did not know of the existence of these cells for 25 years and were asked for additional blood samples in the 1970s, without consent in a time when researchers should’ve know better, and have not benefited financially from the derivative products of HeLa cells.