The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary – July 2022

Author: Rebecca Skloot

Short Summary
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) narrates the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who underwent treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her cancer cells were collected among the cancer cells of other patients but miraculously were the only ones to survive. Her cells were labeled as HeLa cells. The book accounts for the medical advances that were possible due to her cells and the unawareness of her family with the research shows just another example of the exploitation of black women at the hands of white doctors.
the immortal life of henrietta lacks summary
Source: amazon.com

Detailed Summary

Henrietta Lacks, a black woman found out that she has cervix cancer. She went under treatment at the John Hopkins Hospital where the head of tissue culture, George Gey was collecting samples of cancerous and healthy cells. Henrietta’s cells were the only ones to survive in the laboratory. That is why they enabled cloning and genetic mapping. Henrietta on the other hand could not fight the disease and die. Her family found only found out about her cells through a relative who worked at HeLa cells. Later they were exploited by a person who told them that they could sue the hospital for not taking their consent or informing them about Henrietta’s involvement. This person later bullied them too.

Plenty of white reporters and journalists tried exploiting Henrietta’s family in the name of getting credit and money but they were all scams. This is why the author Rebecca Skloot reached them. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summary, you will find the story of Henrietta and her cells moving forward together. You will also learn how Henrietta’s cells influenced cell research and gene parenting.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks not only narrates the story of a single black woman but it points out the history of medical injustices that were conducted against black men and women. Exploiting them for medical research was the same as exploiting animals for the white. What was even worse than this exploitation? The fact that these people never got any credit for their sacrifices. Henrietta’s name and contribution were unknown for years too as the people only knew about HeLa cells who helped in the research but they had no idea where the cells came from and if Henrietta had given her consent for the research.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary Key Points

Henrietta vs HeLa

While Henrietta died due to cancer. Her cells survived. This was nothing but a miracle because most cells were not able to survive long enough in laboratories due to which scientists were not having any breakthroughs. When the cells were taken out of the body and placed in a culture medium they would immediately die. Henrietta’s isolated cells were labeled as HeLa. The cells were quickly distributed among multiple test tubes and Gey called them ‘the first immortal human cells’ these cells were soon used to research illnesses like polio and cancer.

HeLa Cells Were Cheap, Long Living, and resilient

In those days research was conducted on animals and mostly monkeys. This was unethical however, that was not the problem at that time. The problem was that experimenting on monkeys was particularly expensive. It was hard to transport them from one lab to the other for research. They also needed extra care to survive. HeLa cells on the other hand were cheap because they were not paying her family anything and they survived in intense environments too. Third, they were highly susceptible to the polio virus. The mass production of HeLa cells occurred in various industries and the research on various diseases was able to expand at a greater speed.

Henrietta Did Not Get Any Credit

If you have read any of the works by Toni Morrison this will not come to you as a surprise. African Americans have been exploited on several occasions by white. Why? Because they look differently the rest of the country believes that it is okay to treat them differently. Take the example of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments where the black men were not treated so that the scientists could check what happens as the disease progresses or the use of black men as slaves during the Great Depression. Even in the 1800s stories were spread that night doctors kidnapped black men and women during the night and conducted medical research on them.

In the wake of Covid-19 research showed that black was resisting taking the vaccine because they had a history of medical mistrust. When Rebecca Skloot, tried consulting the family of Henrietta they were reluctant to talk due to the same mistrust. They believed that her cells were taken without her permission and mentioned that they were never contacted by the hospital in this regard nor did Henrietta get the credit she deserved.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Quotes

“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, that times were different.” –Rebecca Skloot

“If you pretty up how people spoke and change the things they said, that’s dishonest. It’s taking away their lives, their experiences, and their selves.” –Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary Review

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summarises a marvel of medicine along with the story of black woman exploitation. It is a remarkable yet deeply saddening story. The author’s passion is quite evident throughout the book as she reached the family and dug out forgotten medical research so that Henrietta could get her due credit. It also calls out all the researchers and doctors who are not honest with their patients.

To Whom I Would Recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summary

  • To anyone with an interest in medical history and medical research.
  • Students of black American literature.
  • And to anyone who wants to learn how tissues play an important role in the advancement of medicine.

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