“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Biography by Skloot
Rebecca Skloot uses the titles life, death, and immortality in her write-up to portray a range of events that happen through the biography. The life of Henrietta Lacks, her death, and immortality are essential aspects considered in the development of the memoir. Life, death, and immortality are used metaphorically to depict contemporary society. Social vices, such as racism, poverty, and child labor, are compared to life, death, and immortality through Henrietta Lacks, whose cells are used without consent in cancer research.
In the biography “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot devotes the first section to the subject of life. As can be seen in the discussion below, the quality of this life is also thoroughly explored in figurative terms. Henrietta Lacks was a youthful black female born in August of 1920 in Virginia raised in slavery (Shepherd 2479). All the kids mainly worked in tobacco fields as their slave ancestors. After Henrietta dies, her family still lives in poverty despite her cells making millions. “It is not fair! She is the most critical person globally, and her family is living in poverty (Skloot 109). This chapter also highlights the family’s struggles, giving a better understanding of their pain
Henrietta was a generous and caring person; she was the first to know she was sick and tried to hide her ailment until the debilitating suffering from tumors became unbearable. Henrietta bleeds, searches herself, and takes note of a lump on her cervix. She seeks medical attention from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, “She, like most black patients, only went to Hopkins when she thought she had no choice” (Skloot 19). Skloot reclaims Henrietta’s story by focusing on her early life, love of dance, and denial of her illness. It shows how slavery’s legacy impacts black families through poverty, lack of education, universal health care, and employment. Inaccessible medical care for Henrietta Lacks was due to generational poverty or rather racial segregation. Bobbette claims Johns Hopkins Hospital is untrustworthy because it was founded to cure poor and black patients. Despite being related to black and white Lacks, the light-skinned Lacks refused to acknowledge it since they owned slaves.
This second part talks of death, the literal physical end of Henrietta, and the end of humanity in how her body cells are used in research without consent, as was standard in public wards. Lacks sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital for abdominal pain and bleeding. Howard Jones, her physician, promptly hospitalized her with endometriosis. Lacks’ cervical samples were removed without her consent during subsequent radiation treatments. “Linde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge” (Skloot 40). She died on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31 at Johns Hopkins. Henrietta Lacks was one of a diverse group of patients who unknowingly donated cells at Hopkins in 1951.
Henrietta’s story is historically removed from discussions of HeLa cells, eliminating her from her narrative. This dismissal of Henrietta echoes Gey’s and other researchers’ dismissal of HeLa cells as human. “Everything about Henrietta dead except them cells” (Skloot, 200). Despite George Gey’s good intentions and lack of profit from Henrietta’s cells, he loses sight that such cells were part of a natural human. Henrietta’s identifier can be dropped years down the line, indicating he no longer recognizes them as tied to a person, disregarding her family’s feelings.
Ethel, who scorned Henrietta, is now in charge of her children. Soon ever since Ethel and Galen move in with Day, Ethel begins starving the children and beating Joe daily; Galen starts sexually abusing Deborah Lacks. Bobbette Lacks, Lawrence Lacks’ wife, attempted to avert the abuse. Deborah begs Lawrence to notify her of Elsie’s whereabouts, but he refuses. Joe, Deborah’s brother, is constantly involved in fights and ultimately murders a neighboring boy named Ivy. “If our mother is so vital to science, how come we are unable to obtain health insurance?” (Skloot 109). Joe flees the law with the assistance of Day, but he eventually returns, surrenders, and is arrested.
Henrietta Lacked died, but her cervical cancerous cells are ageless in test tubes. The mutation causes them to divide and proliferate rather than die like normal cells. For many years, Henrietta Lacks’ cells were the only ones able to replicate endlessly. Her cells, recognized as HeLa cells for Henrietta Lacks, are still being used in research worldwide. Henrietta’s family knows that science hides a natural person. That individual suffered and left a family, her heart’s legacy, and her genes (Disis 410). In addition to religious truth, their heritage includes deeply personal family memories. Henrietta’s immortality is in her cells’ effect on medical science. “These cells have transformed modern medicine…” (Skloot, 120). They are still being studied and form the basis of a multi-billion biological products industry.
Lack’s family’s spiritual faith portrays researchers doing nothing to uphold Henrietta’s unique heritage; they feel her cells have surpassed her memory. Deborah decries that no one understands more about her mother. Susan Hsu with Victor McKusick says Henrietta’s cells made her immortal. Henrietta’s kids, her family legacy, should appreciate her scientific heritage, ignoring the HeLa cell story. “HeLa?… You are saying HeLa is her spiritual body?” (Skloot 320) Her cousin Gary questions the distinction between Henrietta’s spiritual and physical immortality, claiming that her cells are her spiritual body, the form God gave her to help others.
To sum up, Rebecca Skloot’s story relates candidly to every title assigned to each part in her biography. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the part titled life, the narrator accounts for several lives and how these characters interacted both with one another and with the surrounding environment. In death, the physical passing of characters is noted, and attributes like humanity and respect for the dead are non-existent. Finally, the aspect of immortality is fully explored by looking at the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks.
Disis, Mary L. (Nora). “Movie Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” JAMA, vol. 318, no. 24, 2017, p. 2410.
Shepherd, Alison. “Henrietta Lacks: New Statue Honors an “Immortal Life.” BMJ, 2021, p. n2479. BMJ.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.CROWN,2010, p.n 381.