the immortal life of henrietta lacks-rebecca skloot

the funny thing with the truth is that it keeps coming up. i have coveted andre harrell‘s various jobs over the years, but his gig at ny undercover was the one that made my eyes the greenest. i’ll never forget the episode where the doctor recreates the tuskeegee experiments with hiv-positive homeless men, though in retrospect, it’s pretty provocative (and/or racist) that that doctor was black and drunk with power. as do-gooder white women everywhere currently lose their shit over the help (the book and the movie), i would suggest that this is actually a true life example of risking everything to tell a story that needs to be heard.

“When Deborah found pages describing Hela the Marvel character, she thought they were describing her mother, since each of Hela’s traits in some way matched what Deborah had heard about her mother’s cells. But it turned out the sci-fi Hela was inspired by the ancient Norse goddess of death, who lives trapped in a land between hell and the living. Deborah figured that goddess was based on her mother too.” (254-5)

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5 thoughts on “the immortal life of henrietta lacks-rebecca skloot

  1. roaming like a cell-ular phone, far from home:

    “The trouble was, at that point, the cells used in neutralization tests came from monkeys, which were killed in the process. This was a problem, not because of concern for animal warfare-which wasn’t the issue then that it is today-but because monkeys were expensive. Doing millions of neutralization tests using monkey cells would cost millions of dollars. So the NFIP went into overdrive looking for a cultured cell that could grow on a massive scale and would be cheaper than using monkeys.” (94)

    “I’ll never forget it,” Aurelian said. “George told me he leaved over Henrietta’s bed and said, ‘Your cells will make you immortal.’ He told Henrietta her cells would help save the lives of countless people, and she smiled. She told him she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.” (66)

    “Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.” (4)

    “Genetically speaking, humans are terrible research subjects. We’re genetically promiscuous-we mate with anyone we choose-and we don’t take kindly to scientists telling us who to reproduce with. Plus, unlike plants and mice, it takes us decades to produce enough offspring to give scientists much meaningful data. Since the mid-1800s, scientists had studied genes by breeding plants and animals in specific ways-a smooth pea with a wrinkled one, a brown mouse with a white one-then breeding their offspring to see how genetic traits passed from one generation to the next. But they couldn’t study human genetics the same way. Cell sex solved that problem, because it meant researchers could combine cells with any trait they wanted and study how those traits were passed along.” (141)

  2. lady legacy:

    “This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing this book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.” (7)

    “Mary stood beside Wilbur, waiting as he sewed Henrietta’s abdomen closed. She wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, but instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs-anything to avoid looking into her lifeless eyes. Then Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish.
    ‘When I saw those toenails,’ Mary told me years later, ‘I nearly fainted. I thought, /Oh jeez, she’s a real person./ I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.’” (91)

    “One of Gey’s colleagues told me that Gey created the pseudonym to throw journalists off the trail of Henrietta’s real identity. If so, it worked. From the moment the /Collier’s/ article appeared until the seventies, the woman behind the HeLa cells would be known most often as Helen Lane, and sometimes as Helen Larson, but never as Henrietta Lacks. And because of that, her family had no idea her cells were alive.” (109)

  3. family matters:

    “Despite the beating and the molesting, Deborah felt closer to Galen than she ever had to Day. When he wasn’t hitting her, Galen showered her with attention and gifts. He bought her pretty clothes, and took her for ice cream. In those moments, Deborah pretended he was her father, and she felt like a regular little girl. But after he chased her through the house naked, it didn’t seem worth it, and eventually she told Galen she didn’t want any more gifts.” (114)

    “Deborah told Bobbette that Galen had hit her, and that he sometimes talked dirty to her in the car. She said nothing about Galen touching her, because she was sure Bobbette would kill him and she worried that with Galen dead and Bobbette in jail for murdering him, she’d have lost the two people who cared for her most in the world.” (115)

    “‘You know what /is/ a myth?’ Bobbette snapped from the recliner. ‘Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.’ She inhaled a deep breath to calm herself. ‘What really would upset Henrietta is the fact that Dr. Gey never told the family anything-we didn’t know nothing about those cells and he didn’t care. That just rubbed us the wrong way. I just kept asking everybody, ‘Why didn’t they say anything to the family?’ They knew how to contact us! If Dr. Gey wasn’t dead, I think I would have killed him myself.’” (169)

    “When she asked McKusick to explain more about the cells, he gave her a book he’d edited called /Medical Genetics/, which would have become one of the most important textbooks in the field. He said it would tell her everything she needed to know, then autographed the inside front cover. Beneath his signature he wrote a phone number and told her to use it for making appointments to give more blood.” (188)

    “None of the doctors knew they were doing research on Henrietta Lacks’s son, because he’d changed his name. Zakariyya and Deborah always figured that if Hopkins had found out he was a Lacks, they wouldn’t have let him leave.” (208)

    “He wore bright blue orthopedic sandals, a faded Bob Marley T-shirt, and a white baseball hat that said, HAM, BACON, SAUSAGE.” (244)

  4. historical junk science:

    “When I tell people the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells, their first question is usually /Wasn’t that illegal for doctors to take Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge? Don’t doctors have to tell you when they use your cells in research?/ The answer is no-not in 1951, and not in 2009, when this book went to press.
    Today most Americans have their tissue on file somewhere. When you go to the doctor for a routine blood test or to have a mole removed, when you have an appendectomy, tonsillectomy, or any other kind of /ectomy/, the stuff you leave behind doesn’t always get thrown out. Doctors, hospitals, and laboratories keep it. Often indefinitely.” (315)

    “Though no law or code of ethics required doctors to ask permission before taking tissue from a living patient, the law made it very clear that performing an autopsy or removing tissue from the dead without permission was illegal.” (89)

    “He chose the Ohio prison because its inmates had cooperated in several other studies without resistance, including one in which they’d been infected with a potentially deadly disease called tularemia. Research on inmates would come under scrutiny and start being heavily regulated about fifteen years later, because they’d be considered a vulnerable population unable to give informed consent. But at that time, prisoners nationwide were being used for research of all kinds-from testing chemical warfare agents to determining how X-raying testicles affected sperm count.” (128-9)

    “Some of the stories were conjured by white plantation owners taking advantage of the long-held African belief that ghosts caused disease and death. To discourage slaves from meeting or escaping, slave owners told tales of gruesome research done on black bodies, then covered themselves in white sheets and crept around at night, posing as spirits coming to infect black people with disease or steal them for research. Those sheets eventually gave rise to the white hooded cloaks of the Ku Klux Klan.” (166)

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