Dehumanization in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rebecca Skloot begins her book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, with a quote from Elie Wiesel: “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” This demonstrates the manner in which Skloot viewed Henrietta, as person with her own universe of mysteries, and not just in the legacy of her infamous HeLa cells.

The scientific community viewed Henrietta as an abstraction taking the name attached to her cells and replacing it with the first two letters of her first and last name – HeLa. Skloot understood that HeLa was indeed a person which many scientists neglected. Having been viewed as an abstraction by the scientific community, Henrietta was known as HeLa, not as Henrietta Lacks neglecting the fact that Henrietta was as well human being too. Skloot’s perspective differs from that of the scientific community because she took the time to understand the hardship Henrietta’s family suffered and is trying to comprehend the meaning of HeLa cells and why the scientists strip the name from their mothers’ cells and replace it with HeLa.

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First off, the scientific community did not properly respect Henrietta and her family because they instead viewed them as an abstraction. During the time when Henrietta passed away, doctors did not need permission to take tissue from her body or do the things they did. They 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” (Skloot 30).

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To use patients as research subjects without permission from the patient is considered illegal in current medical practice and it violates so many rights a person has. In doing so, a doctor would lose their medical license, be sued, and possibly imprisoned. Henrietta’s doctors should not have been able to use her tissue for research, let alone take samples of her tissue since no permission form was signed for the doctors to take samples from her. The only form signed was to conduct emergency procedures if needed, the samples of her tissue were not any sort of emergency. The doctors who treated Henrietta should have faced the consequences for their actions that caused so much distress to the family of Henrietta. Such consequences being that they should have had their medical license taken away and been revived from their position at John Hopkins. At the very least the doctors should have had the decency to ask for permission to take the samples.

Another example of Henrietta being viewed as an abstraction is when the doctors did not inform her of the side effects and negative consequences of the radium treatment she had received. By not informing her that radium would make her infertile, the doctors showed again that they did not really care about what happened to her. “Toward the end of her treatments, Henrietta asked her doctor when she’d be better, so she could have another child. Until that moment, Henrietta didn’t know that the treatments had left her infertile” (Skloot 47). The doctors completely disregarded her choice whether to receive the surgery or not. If she would have been informed this consequence, she most likely would not have received the treatment. She should have been informed and by not doing so the doctors took for granted that she is a human with too. The scientific community had lost ‘Their sense of reality…Human beings were not human beings in their eyes. They were abstractions.’ (Skloot ix). The actions taken by her doctors were remarkably unfair. No human should have been exploited in the ways Henrietta was. The consequence of treating her this way violated her rights of being able to make the proper decision to receive the treatment. Henrietta deserved to be educated on the side effects of the treatment, a decision every human being deserves. Especially, if the patient was not aware of anything going on. The patient is always the one to make the decisions for themselves, the doctor just explains what is needed to be done to help you. They shouldn’t just do it because they want to or it’s beneficial to them and not the patient.

Not only was Henrietta viewed as an abstraction, but her family was as well. When Stanley Gartler announced his shocking discovery that HeLa cells had contaminated many other cultures at the Second Decennial Review Conference on Cell Tissue and Organ Culture, he sent scientist into a panic that millions of dollars of research had been wasted. This caused the scientists to start to look for markers for HeLa cells to distinguish and investigate if Gartler’s new found information was correct. A few doctors decided it would be best to get blood from the family members of Henrietta’s living relatives to identify and investigate genetic markers found in HeLa cells. The genetic markers would allow for them to see what cultures of cells had been contaminated by HeLa cells. Knowing that the family would not give blood if it were for HeLa research, they were lied to so that they would believe the samples of blood were for cancer tests. By lying to the family, the consequence doctors faced by treating the family as an abstraction installed fear into members of the family who did not know that there was no cancer test requiring blood. Deborah was affected the most by the doctors who viewed her and her family as an abstraction. She had been worrying for years until Skloot finally told her there was no such test.

In addition to the scientific community viewing Henrietta and her family as an abstraction, the media did as well. The media continues this by rushing to publish the story of HeLa cells without asking permission from the family. The media often used the wrong name and referred to Henrietta as HeLa because no one knew who she was, they just knew about the extraordinary impact in the science world. The media should have got permission to publish about her rather than guessing at the owner of the cells name to avoid falsely referring to the owner as HeLa or Helen Lane. Henrietta is reduced to the great advances within medicine, rather than for who she was and what she stood for in life. The media neglected the negative impact on the family. In doing so, Henrietta was viewed as an abstraction so ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬that the media could publish their story quickly for profit, regardless of the emotions the family felt. The consequence had dealt with what they risked their possibility of trying to establish a trust between them and the Lacks family. The Lacks no longer trusted the media after being constantly being harassed for information when they should’ve given her the credit in the first place.

Skloot’s perspective is different from that of the media and scientific community in that she cared about the wellbeing of the Lacks. She gained their trust over the course of the book and most importantly, Deborah’s trust. When conducting research, she interviewed every possible person related to the story of Henrietta. She tried to include all the facts and to not leave any information out. She even asks the reader for forgiveness if something has been left out of the book “I hope readers will forgive any omissions” (Skloot xiv). To apologize to the reader for omissions shows she truly spent a lot of time researching for the book and to best extent she could possible. She also states that she “relied on interviews, legal documents, and her medical records to recreate scenes from her life” (Skloot xiv). By trying to recreate scenes that Henrietta experienced with all those different sources of information it provides a deeper understanding of the clarity and depth she hoped to achieve when retelling the events leading up to Henrietta’s death. Skloot spent over a decade writing and researching for the book and her clarity of the events shows she really did want to portray Henrietta and her family as people and not as abstractions. Skloot’s purpose for the book was to accurately and thoroughly describe Henrietta to the reader. She did this to give Henrietta the proper recognition, that was never given to her from the scientific community and the media. Skloot was the first to properly describe the full story of Henrietta, HeLa cell, and all that Henrietta’s family members went through.

Being viewed as an abstraction not only dehumanizes the subject but, also negatively affects their family members as well. Henrietta and her family were both seen as an abstraction by the scientific community and media. She was known around the world as “HeLa” but no one even knew who she was nor took the time to ask the family what her real name was. Skloot viewed Henrietta differently. Skloot took the time and effort to research who Henrietta really was, a mother with five children who had all lost their mother due to cancer and had been neglected to proper recognition she deserved. Skloot made it her priority to honor Henrietta and set up a college fund for the future generations of the Lacks to compensate for Henrietta’s contributions to science. Henrietta and her family never deserved to be treated the way they were by the scientific community and the media, as an abstraction.

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Dehumanization in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (2022, Feb 10). Retrieved from

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