The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The novel “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” written by author Rebecca Skloot’s is a very interesting and fascinating novel. As the author Rebecca Skloot goes on an adventure very determined to learn about a woman named Henrietta Lacks life and her immortal cells which is well known as “HeLa Cells”. Skloot wanted to be able to share the story of not only Henrietta but also Henrietta’s family since there was little known about both Henrietta and her family all that most people knew was the famous cells that came from Henrietta.

It was very clear in this novel that the medical institutes or even just white individuals were not very fond of African Americans at this point in time in fact if an individual was any color other than white to the institution, they were basically just a human figure to take over and do research on. It is mentioned in this novel that “night doctors” would come out into Baltimore at night and would snatch up both black men and women off the streets to take in and do research on (Skloot, 2010).

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It was difficult to find a hospital that served colored people, so Henrietta had to travel further to John Hopkins Hospital because it was considered one of the few that would actually accept colored people although they accepted them they never treated them the same as they did white people (Skloot, 2010). After the doctor discovered a malignant tumor on her cervix, they took a sample of her cancer cells without her knowing and unlike any other cells they realized Henrietta’s cells double every 20 to 24 hours and never died therefore they was immortal (Butanis, 2020).

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After discovering how remarkable Henrietta’s cells was, they decided to name her cells “HeLa Cells” without giving her even the recognition of her own cells (Skloot, 2010). The health care team at Hopkins even failed to mention that the radiation treatment would make her infertile, but it was too late then (Skloot, 2010). Even when Henrietta complained of any sort of pain the doctor would tell her she was okay although she had tumors all over her body (Skloot, 2010). It seems since Henrietta was an African American woman the institution assumed that she was uneducated and that they could exploit her body and do medical research on it without her consent or her acknowledgment. Little did Henrietta know that history was going to be made from her cells. After Henrietta had passed Gey asked Day for permission to do an autopsy and to take samples of tissue from Henrietta’s corpse at first Day had denied his request but then he agreed to allow Gey to do an autopsy on Henrietta’s body so that Hopkins could run test that may would help his children out one day, but little did Day know that Gey just wanted cell samples for his own sake not to help Days children out (Skloot, 2010).

Another situation that occurred from racism that was very similar to Henrietta’s case was when several white doctors took advantage of many African American patients during the “Tuskegee Institute Studies”. During the Tuskegee study the researchers wanted to see if syphilis affects black and white men differently (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). Black men were injected with syphilis unknowingly without any given consent or acknowledgement and the white doctors then watched them die a painful death while leaving them untreated when syphilis could have been cured by penicillin. (The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). This study resembles Henrietta’s in a way that she was a black woman in which her cells was taken without her consent and the black men was injected with syphilis without any given consent or acknowledgment of what was taking place. Another similar case that occurred is when Southam took Henrietta’s cancer cells and injected them into hundreds of patients without their consent (Skloot, 2010). Southam took sick patients and told them that he was testing their immune system but never told them that it was by injecting cancer cells into their body and then he proceeded to take healthy prisoners and also inject them with the cancer cells (Skloot, 2010). When Southam was confronted about his procedure he said people was too ignorant to understand and that if he told them he was injecting cancer cell into them they would not have went through with the process (Skloot, 2010).

Although Henrietta suffered from the effects of the malignant tumor on her cervix, she was not the only individual to suffer in her family. After the passing of Henrietta her kids suffered from abuse from Ethel and Galen. Ethel felt some sort of hate towards Henrietta because she was jealous of her, so she decided to take it out on the children (Skloot, 2010). She forced the kids to work all day and most of the time they starved (Skloot, 2010). For some reason Ethel took most of her anger out on Joe now known as Zakariyya which made him grow up to be an angry and aggressive individual which then lead him to prison for murder (Skloot, 2010). Deborah was sexually abused by Galen from the time Henrietta passed until the time she married into an abusive relationship. (Skloot, 2010). Lawrence’s girlfriend Bobette decide to take the kids away from Ethel and take care of them herself along with the help of Lawrence (Skloot, 2010). The death of Henrietta seemed to affect the family in ways such as they were put through a lot of abuse and they grew up as a poor black family and being poor never changed for them.

The cells first become known to the Lacks family in 1973 by Bobbette when she met a man that that worked at the National Cancer Institute (Skloot, 2010). After he had realized Bobette’s last name was “Lacks” he became curious and told her that he had worked with a woman’s cells and her name was “Henrietta Lacks” which Bobbette found that very odd because that was her mother in laws name but she had been gone twenty sum years (Skloot, 2010). She then realized they was both talking about the same person and she then became fearful that the doctors were going to come after the rest of Henrietta’s family and their cells (Skloot, 2010). After they found Henrietta’s family, they then wanted blood tests from all of them. The Lacks family explains to Skloot that they were never informed about the use of the HeLa cells (Skloot, 2010).

In fact, they did not even know what a cell was. Although the fact that Henrietta’s cells was benefiting and helping others seemed to make them feel a little less upset and more at peace with their mother’s death until they realize how much her cells was being sold for. They tell Skloot that they feel like they have been cheated out of the money made off the HeLa cells, and then explain how they cannot even afford to get any health insurance (Skloot, 2010). Almost the entire Lacks family struggled financially, and they could not even get a dime or recognition from their own mother’s cells. The Lacks family felt so strongly against doctors and medical institutions after what they did to them and Henrietta, they decided that they would rather suffer than go and see a doctor and it left them in fear. Whereas they felt they were better off suffering rather than being manipulated and taking advantage of by doctors without their own consent (Skloot, 2010).

As Skloot continues her research journey with the Lacks family her and Deborah decide to go on a weekend trip that started in Crownsville where Elsie Lacks which was Deborah’s oldest sister stayed for five years (Skloot, 2010). Elsie stayed at a place that was known as “The Hospital for the Negro Insane” in which she was put there because of her diagnosis of epilepsy in that case Skloot and Deborah decided to go get the autopsy report and her medical records to get a background of what occurred inside of that place and what they found was horrifying. In Elsie’s file was a picture of a white women with well-manicured nails grasping Elsie around the neck (Skloot, 2010).

Which shows how racism was also an issue at this institution. By the looks of the photo it seems that Elsie had been abused and had also been crying. Elsie was placed inside of poorly ventilated room with men and women of all ages, sex offenders and others diagnosed with many different diseases (Skloot, 2010). Not only did this institution consist of racism but the workers here also experimented on the patients for their own benefit without the patients’ consent (Skloot, 2010). Elsie’s experience at Crownsville is very similar to her mother Henrietta’s experience at Hopkins in ways that white doctors took advantage of both and did whatever they pleased to do to them without any consent from them or their family. It seems after Henrietta’s death that everyone in the family decided to just forget about Elsie which left her alone with no family. Elsie’s father Day never wanted anything to do with her because of her disability he considered her dumb and deaf (Skloot,2010).

In this novel there are several things that are morally wrong in the way medical institutions are treating their patient’s specifically colored patients as an experiment and not as a human. I found several ethical issues in this novel whereas these doctors and other healthcare providers was being maleficent in ways that they were harming several individuals for their own experiment. Also, these patients were not giving any autonomy to decide for themselves what kind of care they would like to receive and what they would not like to receive. African Americans received no justice whereas they were treated unequally from the whites when hospitalized.

The main priority of any healthcare worker should be to meet their patient’s goals and take care of them as well as possible. However, these institutions were not respecting their patient’s autonomy but instead they were neglecting and abusing them by not giving them the treatment they deserve as a person and as a patient and they based their care mainly off their skin color. In Henrietta’s case they seemed to not care about her at all they wanted to do was study on her cells once they discovered they were immortal. All patients have “patient rights” whereas they deserved to decide what happens to their body and they deserve to know the effects of the procedure and if any samples are being removed. Although at the time it was not illegal for the medical professionals to take Henrietta’s cells without her consent but its was however morally wrong and very unethical. The medical world has changed drastically since Henrietta’s time whereas patients’ rights and their privacy are met only through the patient’s consent.

In todays society the patient must receive all the information on a procedure and must sign before any type of care is given. “The ethical code of health care professionals’ states that patients have the right to know the truth about their medical condition, and that they can choose treatment options” (Dowd, 2018). Although Henrietta lived a short life of only thirty years, she was the reason for many curatives to illnesses and she did not even know how unremarkable her body was for creating the “HeLa Cells”. Her legacy of HeLa line cells will forever live on and make a difference in the world of health care. Her cells will continue to save lives every day.

Cite this page

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. (2022, Feb 10). Retrieved from

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