Heads and Tales—March 16th—The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

On the 16th of March a small but perfectly formed group of six met to discuss “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot. This was the fascinating and very tragic true story of an African American cancer patient in Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s. Henrietta Lacks suffered and died from cervical cancer. Without her knowledge or consent her cancer cells were grown and eventually disseminated for world-wide use in biomedical research.

The Johns Hopkins physicians who treated her and the scientists who used her cells seemed to behave honourably with the sole object of advancing knowledge and patient treatment. However subsequently  private companies sought to make a commercial venture out of it.

Over several subsequent generations the family of Henrietta Lacks felt betrayed and exploited by the almost exclusively white establishment. Rebecca Skloot struggled for several years to win the trust and cooperation of family members. The book ends with the author establishing a scholarship fund for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks.

This book highlighted complex issues of informed consent, race, poverty, scientific research and the American healthcare system.

Alison Hastie

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