“Like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge. Many scientists 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.”
This quote introduces the topic of medical ethics to Skloot’s work and sets up many of the questions Skloot explores throughout the book. Is it ok to use humans as research without their consent? At what point should the rights of the individual supersede their possible contributions to the human race? This quote also foreshadows Henrietta’s story—George and Margaret Gey acquired Henrietta’s cells from John Hopkins hospital, which treated her for free.
“What do you know about African-Americans and science?”
Seemingly perfunctory, Patillo’s question masks a relationship fraught with violence, deceit, and racism. When he asks Skloot what she knows about the relationship between Black people and science, he is testing her intentions. If she truly wishes to tell Henrietta’s story, she should already know that science has a past of misusing Black bodies. Skloot passes Patillo’s test, because he puts her into contact with Henrietta’s family.
“I’ll never forget it,” Aurelian said. “George told me he leaned over Henrietta’s bed and said, ‘Your cells will make you immortal.’ He told Henrietta her cells would help save the lives of countless people, and she smiled. She told him she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.”
If this exchange between Gey and Henrietta actually occurred, it’s significant for several reasons. First, it shows that at some point Henrietta was told of her cells’ importance and role they would play for civilization. Second, it introduces the idea of Henrietta’s cells making her immortal. Lastly, the quote illustrates Henrietta’s generous and selfless spirit.
“You know, they said if we could get all the pieces of her together, she’d weigh over eight hundred pounds now,” he told me. “And Henrietta never was a big girl.”
This quote from Henrietta's cousin Cootie is somewhat contradictory. On one hand, it stresses how separate Henrietta is from her cells. They have reached a size and mass that she never approached in life. On the other hand, by referring to the HeLa cells as “pieces” of Henrietta, Cootie affirms that the cells are remnants of his cousin, not just bits of matter manipulated by scientists in labs. This quote exhibits the complexity of the conversation surrounding Henrietta and the HeLa cells.
“Gey was relieved that companies had taken over HeLa distribution so that he didn’t have to do it himself, but he didn’t like the fact that HeLa was now completely out of his control.”
Gey’s annoyance that someone else was in control of HeLa demonstrates how possessive he grew over Henrietta’s cells, and how he considers them his own property. Not Henrietta’s, or her family’s, but his. Gey’s possessiveness foreshadows the court cases and legal debates surrounding patient rights vs. researcher rights regarding cellular matter and technology developed from that matter.
“Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?” he whispered. “I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.”
Several core themes of the book are exhibited in these poignant words from Lawrence Lacks. Questions of medical ethics are raised once we realize that no one in Henrietta’s family was told about her importance. The degree to which Henrietta the person had been separated from the HeLa cells show how science had stripped the cells of their human element. Finally, public ignorance of science and medicine are on full display in this quote. For Lawrence to be unaware of the HeLa cell line, when anyone familiar with the basics of molecular science would recognize it, shows how distant the science world can be from the average person.
“Her cells caused millions of dollars in damage. Seems like a bit of poetic justice, doesn’t it?”
Here Lengauer is referring to the damage the HeLa cells caused when it was revealed that they had contaminated years and millions of dollars worth of cellular research around the world. He personifies Henrietta’s cells and asserts that they belong to her. He suggests that the contaminating nature of the HeLa cells are partly Henrietta’s way of exacting justice for the crimes committed against herself and her family. By connecting Henrietta to her cells, Lengauer serves as a foil to the rest of the scientific community, who largely dehumanized Henrietta and ignored her connection to the HeLa cells.
“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, times was different.”
This quote is important because it displays Deborah’s generous nature. It also describes a common justification scientists use when defending their behavior regarding patient and subject rights. Many of the rules and regulations that mandate informed patient/subject consent, and forbid certain experiments and trials, were not introduced until the mid to late 20th century. Thus, while members of Henrietta’s family are justifiably furious about what was done to their mother without their knowledge, Deborah can see it from the scientists’ perspective. However, “times was different” does not excuse the continued morally questionable relationship between the HeLa cells, Henrietta’s family, and the science community.
“Sonny had a quintuple bypass in 2003, when he was fifty-six years old—the last thing he remembered before falling unconscious under the anesthesia was a doctor standing over him saying his mother’s cells were one of the most important things that had ever happened to medicine. Sonny woke up more than $125,000 in debt because he didn’t have health insurance to cover the surgery.”
One of the ironic tragedies of Henrietta’s story is that despite the monumental and unquantifiable contributions Henrietta’s cells have made (and continue to make) to science, medicine, and the human race, her family and descendants live impoverished lives without access to (affordable) health care. If her family saw even a sliver of the money earned due to the research her cells facilitated, they would be financially stable for generations. This is another facet of the moral and ethical debate surrounding Henrietta and the HeLa cell line.
There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her—a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”
Rebecca Skloot keeps this photograph of Henrietta on her wall throughout the writing of the book. It is one of the only photographs of Henrietta that exists, and it appears numerous times throughout the book - Courtney Speed keeps a copy of it, Deborah is shocked to find it in a biology textbook, and so on.
The photo also serves as a way to humanize Henrietta, who was a wife and mother and sister before she gave rise to the famous cell line HeLa. Despite her massive contributions to science, Henrietta was forgotten as a person, to the extent that even the researchers who worked with her cells did not know her name. Rebecca Skloot's book is a way of bringing this humanized Henrietta to the fore, and her effort is encompassed in this photo.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.