The Theme of Racism As Portrayed in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Categories: Henrietta lacks

Summary: In the first section, Skloot introduces Henrietta Lacks, her family and her medical history. When first learning of Henrietta (HeLa), Skloot is surprised to find that not much information is available about her. She then begins her journey to understand what has become of HeLa cells, her family and her infamous cells. She intertwines both stories to recreate what has happened to Hela’s family and the infamous medical discovery. Racism was very common in the 1950s, where Henrietta grew up.

As a result of the racism, blacks were in a lower social class and thus, lower economical status. They rarely went to the hospital unless it was a necessity, and there the white doctors took cells from them because the African Americans grew up learning to never question whites. Henrietta had been experiencing pain and thought a knot was growing inside of her. She went to Johns Hopkins Hospital and met with her doctor. The doctor, Dr. George Gey, took both cancer and normal cells of HeLa’s to use in his test.

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The test was to find out if cells could survive outside the human body: “immortal” cells (66). Henrietta’s normal cells did not survive, but the cancer cells did and multiplied with great progression. These cells grew to become the most widely used cells in medical history.

Significance: In the first section, Skloot introduces her views on how she believes how modern day racism may have affected both Henrietta’s overall treatment and future compensation. Skloot also brings up potential ethical problems.

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Henrietta lived in the era of Jim Crow and in constant fear of her white neighbors. She should have had access to the best medical equipment in the hospital, but since Henrietta was black, she was not able to. Also, her race may have been a factor as to why her family did not receive compensation when they learned of the HeLa cells.

Reaction: When I found out Henrietta’s cells were taken from her without knowledge, I was shocked. I was even more appalled to find out there was no law against it. While I do agree with the purpose this research is for, I dislike how Henrietta was oblivious to the research. I also disagree with the treatment of Hela and her family. Why did the doctors neglect HeLa’s family and refuse to give them any compensation considering they can barely afford health care? Is it fair that HeLa cells are used for many test treatments, but her family did not become aware of it until twenty years after she died?

Close Reading: In chapter 8, Skloot describes the current racial situation and ethics issue. When dealing with Henrietta’s health issues, some of her doctors did not share information regarding her cervical cancer. However, she did not mention it because “segregation was law, and it was understood that black people didn’t question white people’s professional judgment” (63). This passage informs the readers of the segregation that occurred during Henrietta’s life, which may have affected her overall experience as a patient at Johns Hopkins. This is effective to the overall argument because it is an ethics issue. Henrietta and her family were not aware that cells were taken from them in order to increase knowledge about immortal cells and other experiments. Hela’s family may have received compensation if they were white instead of black and Henrietta, herself, may have been able whether or not she wanted her cells to go to Dr. Gey. Also, she would have received much better treatment if she were not African American.

Cite this page

The Theme of Racism As Portrayed in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. (2022, Feb 15). Retrieved from

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