Why “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Matters in a Post-Pandemic World

By Eric MuellerLast Updated Apr 10, 2021 9:26:45 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; Smith Collection/Gado/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In 2010, Crown Publishing released Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book won a slew of awards, appeared at the top of many "best of" lists for that year and spent at least 75 weeks on the NYT Bestseller List. In 2017, a movie of the same name based on the book was released on HBO.

What is it about the story about the historical figure that keeps people reading, watching and returning to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? In part, there were a lot of wrongs that Henrietta Lacks faced that gripped readers and viewers alike.

In 2020 and beyond, the ingredients for justice for Henrietta Lacks are being laid out. Without vaccinations, the COVID-19 pandemic might still feel like a hopeless situation. But, thanks in part to Henrietta Lacks, vaccines have become a key element of modern medicine. Rebecca Skloot told her story, but the social justice movements are making sure Lacks’ story continues being told.

The Health Scare That Saved Lives in More Ways Than One

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920. She was 5 feet tall, had five children and lived to be 31. In 1951, the year of her death, she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital — the only facility in her area that accepted Black patients at the time — and was misdiagnosed twice. Doctors first tested her for syphilis. She was later diagnosed with cervical cancer, and it wasn’t until 1970 that doctors discovered her diagnosis should have been adenocarcinoma, a cancerous tumor that can appear in a number of parts in the body. While she was receiving treatment, Dr. George Otto Gey took two samples from Lacks without her knowledge. One of those samples went on to become HeLa — the first immortal cell line. This is where the title, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, comes from.

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Photo Courtesy: HeLa cells stained under a Nikon RTS2000MP. Credit:National Institutes of Health/Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of HeLa meant a lot of different things. The medical advancement itself was huge and those responsible for discovering HeLa were well-recognized in their community and compensated well for it. People who made discoveries using HeLa also were able to advance their careers and their livelihoods. It’s important to recognize that Skloot herself profited from the book in both a monetary way and socially. Someone whose position did not advance, however, was Henrietta Lacks.

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Henrietta Lacks’ life-saving goes beyond the medical advancements made with samples from her body. The historical figure has also advanced conversations revolving ethics in science and medicine. Despite the book and movie about her, Henrietta Lacks is still struggling to be heard.

Knowing what we consent to when we get our blood drawn is important. If a sample taken from a person is used for research that becomes a major medical advancement, should that person be compensated — or at least recognized? The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brought a human perspective to these debates, highlighting why Lacks herself is such an important figure when it comes to the rights of patients and the treatment of Black Americans in the U.S. healthcare system.

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What Makes “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” So Special?

When you think about it,The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has all the elements of a captivating story. Rebecca Skloot first published articles about HeLa in the early 2000s, so she spent over 10 years crafting and researching to make her possible. It definitely shows. The story highlights decades of scientific research. HeLa cells have been essential in the modernization of medicine.

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Photo Courtesy: Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks and Rose Byrn as Rebecca Skloot in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Credit: IMDB

Aside from the science, there is also the tale of a family that has this generational trauma over their heads. As Skloot interviews the Lacks family, the injustice in their situation grabs more and more of the focus. A narrative of racial injustice unfolds alongside the scientific developments and highlights the ways Black folks are treated in the American healthcare system. The fact that the Lacks family lives in poverty while doctors profited from Henrietta’s sample is appalling — and has long been commonplace in the U.S. medical system. The narrative’s focus on real people humanizes groups that are often marginalized in society, and their humanity can turn a reader into an ally.

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There is also a mini detective narrative in the story. In the HBO film, Rose Byrn plays Rebecca Skloot. The inclusion of Skloot in a film that could have been simply about Henrietta and her family is an important element of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as a whole. Audiences love a story within a story and the process of following an outsider to the inside. This has been seen in books-turned-films like The Help and In Cold Blood. Viewers like being included in the journey — some want to help put a stop to the injustice.

Henrietta Lacks in a COVID-19 World

HeLa, sometimes referred to as "Lacks cells," are the first discovered immortal cell line. An immortal cell line is a cell or group of cells that doesn’t stop replicating, which is not a natural process. Immortal cell lines typically come from mutations or they’re induced during scientific experiments.

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Photo Courtesy: SOPA Images/Getty Images

HeLa cells have been cited in over 110,000 scientific publications since 1953. In 2015, HeLa was cited in over 6,000 publications — the most in any year that HeLa cells have been available. Notable instances of HeLa saving thousands upon thousands of lives include Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, and in treatment and vaccines for HPV. The polio vaccine is particularly interesting because Salk initially failed at making a vaccine in 1948. It wasn’t until after HeLa entered the picture that the advancements could be made. HeLa cells are even used to test the toxicity of HIV medications.

The National Institutes of Health has a map of everywhere that HeLa has been studied all over the world. Human cells don’t typically live enough to survive trips around the world, so HeLa’s reach was unparalleled at the time. The US Government’s acknowledgment of HeLa’s global presence is a small step in the right direction.

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When scientists found that HIV could live in HeLa cells, it made it easier for scientists to study the virus that causes AIDS, making Henrietta Lacks a bit of a Pride icon in addition to everything else. Lacks cells have been studied to aid treatment development for almost every type of cancer and even for diseases that harm pets.On the COVID-19 front, Lacks cells were used to identify how and where the virus enters human cells.

Charts at GoogleTrends tell us that people were searching for Henrietta Lacks the most in 2017, which is understandable considering this coincided with the movie’s release. What pops out in the data is that there is a bump in searches in June 2020. While the world was chanting "Black Lives Matter" and demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, people were looking up Henrietta Lacks to learn more about her story and other historical figures that may have been overlooked or wronged by systemic racism.

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It’s important to acknowledge that Henrietta Lacks lived and died in the era of Jim Crow laws. A Black woman’s body is responsible for saving millions of lives, but not enough people know her story. The use of her cells was able to break down some barriers, however. When Jonas Salk started using HeLa, there were people who believed that polio only infected white people, excluding people of color from the conversation. Vaccines and treatments made from her cells healed people of all races. This showed some people that humans of different races weren’t as different as the world made them out to be.

The story in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in a way is a culmination of the current events around us. It is a story that could not have gained traction without the curiosity and mindfulness of allies with a need to educate themselves. People are finally teaching themselves what their history classes did not. Henrietta Lacks has helped eradicate viruses in the past, and her legacy is one to consider as the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more readily available.

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