The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

Is it possible for a poor tobacco farmer in the 1950s to infinitely affect the course of scientific research? The answer is if yes if one is referring to Henrietta Lacks. In her book called the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot examines the relationship between this poor tobacco farmer and her impact on the realm of scientific experimentation. Her cells were gathered and researched without her authorization in 1951. These cells, known as HeLa cells, came to change the course of scientific research.

In 1951, 31-year-old Henrietta Lacks ventured into Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore Maryland to check on a bump on her cervix. When the bump was examined and biopsied, scientist George Gey, removed part of those cells and put them into a culture without Henrietta's permission. When he realized that Henrietta’s cells were growing rapidly in its culture, he knew that he had made a dramatic medical technological breakthrough. It was the first time that human cells were able to replicate in a research lab. This breakthrough spawned the research needed for the creation of the polio vaccine and AIDS treatment. Meanwhile, in the shadow of this discovery, Henrietta was subsequently diagnosed with cervical cancer and treated with x-ray therapy. She later passed away from this disease.

In her book, Skloot traces the origins when Lacks family first realized that their relative played such a huge role in medical science. With this discovery, the family felt that they were cheated by the scientific community. Skloot was not able to provide the family with any type of monetary compensation. However, she created a foundation on their behalf to assist with their financial needs. The juxtaposition of a poor tobacco farmer and her impact on the vast field of medical research is at the center of Skloot’s book. To bolster her point, she traces other types of unauthorized medical research studies such as the Tuskegee syphilis research studies and the Chester Southam cancer studies.

Skloot leaves the reader with something to consider. It took her a decade to piece this entire story together with the lesson that tells us that even though someone could seem like they are unimportant by societal measures, they can have an immense impact on the world at large. Henrietta’s life lives on immortally in the form of the HeLa cells, which she left behind. Even though the cells led to her demise, they led to the rebirth of scientific ingenuity with far-reaching benefits for many people in the present day.

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