A Book Review: Henrietta Lacks: Pass It On
As a passenger on more than one road trip this summer, I spent a fair amount of time looking out the window, catching a glimpse of a speckled fawn, a watchful hawk, a creek nestled in the woods, Queen Anne’s Lace waving lazily along the roadside. And billboards, many billboards. Most were only slightly more entertaining than mile-markers, but there were a few thought-provoking ones. The mysterious eyes of the Mona Lisa. Smile. Pass it on. The commanding presence of Winston Churchill. Commitment. Pass it on. I wondered, what if one said “Cells” or even more specifically “DNA. Pass it on?” There’s an instinctive part of us that knows survival hinges on passing it on. Maybe that’s why these messages are so simply appealing. They affirm life and, as a species, we want to pass it on. But what if you had no choice? What if your DNA was passed on without your knowledge or consent? Such is the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family – the carriers of her genes, her traits, her character.
Henrietta was born August 1, 1920, the 8th of 10 siblings. When Henrietta’s mother died giving birth to her 10th child, her father divided the children up among the relatives; Henrietta grew up in her grandfather’s house. She spent her childhood working in the tobacco fields with her cousin Day, who also came from a scattered family. She began having his children by age 14 and spent her adulthood married to him. In 1941, she and Day left Clover, Virginia, and moved to Turner’s Station, just outside of Baltimore. The United States had entered World War II, and many families moved to the area to make a better living at Sparrow Point, the largest steel plant in the world at the time. Turner’s Station was a community for black families that sprang up to house the influx of workers. In this Jim Crow era of “separate but equal,” there were two towns where most workers lived, one for black families and one for white families, two types of jobs at the steel plant, one for black workers and one for white workers, and two levels of wages, one for black workers and one for white workers.
Ten years and five children later, she found herself in the care of doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, again “separate but equal.” Diagnosed with cervical cancer, Henrietta had known intuitively that something was wrong for more than a year, telling her cousins “I got a knot inside me.” But she became pregnant again, giving the cancer additional time to get the upper hand. What she didn’t know was at the time of her treatment, the doctors had taken a sample of the tumor for cell culture research.
Those cells became known as HeLa cells, the descendants of which traveled into space, helped develop the polio vaccine, and were used to test the effects of new chemotherapy drugs, steroids, hormones, and vitamins. None of this came without its share of controversy in the medical field. The history of in vitro testing is filled with stops and starts, wrong turns, and sensationalism.
There was controversy on a personal level also. Though Henrietta was eventually made aware that her tumor was sampled, her family members knew nothing of her cells’ foray into scientific research and the millions of dollars that were generated. Biological supply companies were making huge profits from the cells yet the family was still struggling to make ends meet and pay their medical bills. Eventually, finding out left them scared, angry, and not entirely comprehending it all. It was not that doctors and researchers were purposely hiding the information from the family, they just never thought to tell them, let alone compensate them. Such was the mindset then. Though they never set out to do so, Henrietta Lacks and her family contributed not only to equality of medical care between black and white people, but to the establishment of laws governing the use of human tissues in research and many medical advances that improve the health of millions. What is tragic is that her family still could not afford health insurance. Yet, when told her cells would help save the lives of countless people, she only said she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone. And years later, her daughter Deborah echoed that sentiment. “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it.”
Pass it on.
Recommended reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Janice is a former biology teacher turned veterinary assistant.