Knowledge, Culture, and Immortality in the Story of Henrietta Lacks
Knowledge is power. This old adage is brought to new life in Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book entitled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Although a work of non-fiction, the text is written like a novel, complete with interesting characters and a plot line that drives the reader to the very last page. But this book is more than simply the story of one woman’s life. Rather, it contains two stories – the human and the scientific – whereby human foibles and frailties are set against ironclad scientific truths; knowledge for the people about the science becomes the key that unlocks the past.
The story of Henrietta Lacks is broken up into three distinct parts. The first section, entitled Life, deals with the mundane travesties of being an African American woman in the 20th century. Indeed her short life – for she died just a few months after her thirty-first birthday – symbolizes all the worst of black life in the U.S.: poverty, poor educational opportunities, inadequate healthcare, physical and emotional neglect. Having met her cousin and future husband Day at the age of four, Henrietta spent most of her youth with him tending farm animals and picking cotton on a former plantation in rural Virginia. By the time she was fourteen, Henrietta had the first of five children. Eventually she also contracted a case of syphilis and a virulent strain of Human Papilloma Virus 18 (HPV) from Day, along with the cervical cancer which brought her short life to an end in October 1951.
Prior to her death, Lacks did manage to go to the hospital – Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland – for treatment of the cancer. Here, Skloot introduces the reader to researcher Dr. George Gey and his wife, Margaret, who were “determined to grow the first immortal human cells” (30) at a time when “more than 15,000 women were dying each year from cervical cancer” and “few doctors knew how to interpret [Pap smear test] results accurately” (29). Clearly the early 1950s represent an important turning point in the scientific community’s knowledge of cancer and cell tissue. The determinative work Gey did was foundational in the development of that knowledge. Along with Gey, the reader is introduced to Dr. Lawrence Wharton, Jr. It was Wharton who, during a follow up radium treatment visit that Lacks made to Johns Hopkins, “picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix: one from her tumor, and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby. Then he placed the samples in a glass dish” (33) and gave them to Gey. According to Skloot, no one told Lacks that samples would be collected, nor was she asked if she wanted to be a donor.
A third individual to whom the reader is introduced is Dr. Howard Jones, Henrietta Lacks’ gynecologist at Johns Hopkins, who described the lump he found on her cervix as “grape Jello” which bled when he touched it. According to Skloot, “Jones cut a small sample and sent it to the pathology lab down the hall for diagnosis. Then he told Henrietta to go home” (15). Of course going home was appealing advice for Henrietta Lacks, who considered “walking into Hopkins . . . [akin to] entering a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language” (16). This leads to the introduction of another important character in the story. Although Johns Hopkins is an institution rather than a person, it does figure largely in what happens to Lacks. Johns Hopkins was initially built in 1889 “as a charity hospital for the sick and poor” and by the 1950s most of the hospital was “filled with patients [who were] black and unable to pay their medical bills” (15). It was also the “only major hospital for miles that treated black patients” (15). Although Skloot does not overtly state it, Jim Crow segregation plays a part in the life – and death – of Henrietta Lacks.