The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary & Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary & Study Guide Description

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is the story of a poor black woman who was raised in the South. Throughout her childhood and adult life, she worked from sunrise to sunset on a tobacco farm. Henrietta’s mother died when she was only four, and life got rougher than it had already been. There were nine kids in the family, and they were just too much for her father to handle. So, he split them up among several relatives. Henrietta was sent to live with her paternal grandfather, Tommy Lacks. Tommy was raising other grandchildren, including David Lacks who was five years older than Henrietta.

David and Henrietta shared the same bed. As the children matured, they became sexually involved. Henrietta became pregnant with her first child at just fourteen. She had several more children before she and David married when she was twenty. Henrietta stayed with David, but he was a less than a stellar partner. He drank and caroused with other women and brought diseases home to her like syphilis and gonorrhea. The family moved to Baltimore when David had a chance to work at a steel mill and earn more money than he did on a tobacco farm.

When Henrietta was thirty, she felt what she called a “knot” in her lower torso. She saw a doctor at Johns Hopkins University when she began to feel discomfort from the “knot.” She was eventually diagnosed with cervical cancer. Johns Hopkins doctors took samples of her cancerous cervix to study in the lab. The doctors felt they had a right to take samples from public wards who were treated without charge. Taking their tissue was a form of payment. Most cultured cells only lasted a few days and then died off. When Henrietta’s samples arrived, the lab technician who was assigned to work with them figured her samples would be no different than the many others she had monitored.

But, to the lab tech’s great surprise, the new cells she just received doubled overnight. She separated the culture into two parts and placed each in a separate container. By the next day they had doubled and had consumed all the space that she had allowed for them. The lab director, George Gey, was amazed just as the world of medical scientific research would be one day.

Over the years, Henrietta’s cells became known as the HeLa cells. They were distributed to labs all over the world. Their reproduction was unlimited. Henrietta Lacks had become immortal through her diseased cancerous cells. Many medical advancements were made using the HeLa cells. Literally hundreds of thousands of tests were conducted using them. However, they were so strong and robust that they were suspected of contaminating other cultures. Millions of dollars were made by private companies on the sale of HeLa cells.

Henrietta died a few months after the cells were taken from her. She never knew that her cells had been taken and that they, in a sense, had made her immortal. Her family didn’t realize how Henrietta’s cells had been used until twenty years after Henrietta’s death. While private labs were making millions on her cells, her family remained poverty stricken and without health insurance.

Henrietta’s “immortality” led to many achievements in medical research, but it also led to more restrictions of the use of the cells and tissues of patients. After the exploitation of the HeLa cells, research standards and restrictions were instituted, including the “informed consent” clause. This clause states that patients must be informed of a doctor’s or lab’s intentions relative to the use of your tissue, blood, or cells.

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