Henrietta Lacks was a poor, overworked black lady in America. She is the foundation of most of the world’s knowledge and treatment of polio, cancer and other diseases and she never knew that she would become so important. And she is almost completely unknown, lying in an unmarked grave!
Suffering from cervical cancer, she sought treatment at the John Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s in East Baltimore, USA. As a black women in those days, she had to go to the ‘black’ treatment areas and was treated by white doctors who had an unquestioned ‘carte blanche’ to do anything to her without details, explanation or even permission. She wasn’t told of her condition until it was well advanced and she was about to die. Samples of tissue were taken, as was quite common at that time. It turned out that Henrietta’s cancerous cells became the first cultured cells that didn’t die!! Previously, human cells didn’t survive outside the body, no matter how scientists tried to preserve them alive. This meant that experiments were difficult because living cells didn’t exist. When the tissue samples from Henrietta, now called HeLa cells, were cultured, amazingly they lived! They Survived! and so Henrietta unwittingly became the source of the raw material that would allow the polio vaccine, understanding of cancer, the effect of the Atom Bomb, cloning, gene mapping, and IVF!! What a record!
The author takes us on the journey from Henrietta’s early days, sleeping on dried tobacco, through her family life and illness to immortality. But also, she characterizes the harm and distress caused to Henrietta’s relatives by the removal of cells without permission. How would you feel if your mother’s cells were killed by radiation, infected with viruses, shot into space and reproduced millions of times. There have been many more HeLa cells produced since Henrietta died than ever were to be found in her when she was alive!
Absorbing reading of amazing behaviour in our hospitals, great benefits to science and world health and torture and distress to those living since.
$35 Trade Paper