The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Megan Espy
Andrew Schussler
GEP 101.013
2 May 2012
Reflection Paper: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Indeed Henrietta Lacks’ life is immortal. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman of the 1950’s. She suffered from cervical cancer and eventually passed away at age 31. Because of her gender and race, she was treated unfairly and unable to receive proper treatment for cancer. A doctor by the name of Howard Jones was responsible for Henrietta’s diagnosis. As he examined the tumor in her cervix, he discovered it’s unusual size and color. Henrietta was then scheduled for treatment. The surgeon on duty was responsible for her treatment. His name was Lawrence Wharton. Because of Richard TeLinde’s theory, for research purposes, Wharton helped himself to a few samples of her cervix without the consent of Henrietta Lacks or her family. He then sent the tissues to a specialist by the name of George Gey. George Gey and his wife Margaret had been studying and growing cell cultures for years. With that being said, Gey and his wife grew Henrietta’s samples in a test tube in a lab at Johns Hopkins hospital. He eventually realized that these cells were not normal. They were immortal. And even now, fives decades after her death, HeLa cells are still being used for scientific research. A curious biology student known as Rebecca Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. When Skloot was 16, she was taking a biology course at a community college for high school credit because the alternative school she went to didn’t offer it. Sitting in this biology lecture at 16, she was learning words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors (Skloot 2). At this particular time in her studies, she was learning about cells, including cell functions and cell parts. Her instructor explained to her that cells were amazing things. And to help the students understand how scientists have researched cells in previous years, he wrote a name on the board. The name read, “HENRIETTA LACKS” (Skloot 3). She wanted to know what was behind HeLa cells, and she wanted to know what they stood for. She began doing research and interviewing people who had any knowledge of the story. And as a result of her research, interviews, investigations, notes, and book, society knows more now than they ever did before. As I read the book, Skloot sparked my interest because the story she told is not only about the immortal cells, but also about the life of Henrietta’s struggling family after her death. I was sitting in my room trying to comprehend the story. Not that I didn’t understand what was going on, but I didn’t understand why. The most captivating part of this book is the controversy in it all. At one end of the spectrum there is a black woman in the 1950’s with cervical cancer, and at the other end, there is white male doctor treating her for free yet, stealing from her for research. I thought about it for a while and eventually came to the conclusion that TeLinde, Wharton and Gey were wrong for doing so. Still to this day, HeLa’s family has never been repaid for their unknown contribution to scientific research. Henrietta’s family didn’t learn of her immortality until scientists began investigating the cells and using her husband and children as research subjects without their consent. Once they understood what was happening to them, they were outraged. They felt violated in a way that scientists have been studying their family for years and making billions of dollars while they’re struggling to make ends meet. Her son, Lawrence Lack’s states, “If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance.” The story begins when Henrietta started to feel pain after the birth of her daughter Deborah. She was with her family and told her cousins that sex was painful and it felt like there was a “knot in her womb”. A week later she found out she was pregnant with her son Joe. Her cousins assumed and proceeded to tell her that the pain was probably...
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