African Americans and Science : The Story of Henrietta Lacks

Photo of Henrietta Lacks Courtesy of #HerStory35 (https://herstory.chickhistory.org/2014/04/05/chick-history-herstory-35-henrietta-lacks-by-gloria-l-blackwell/)

The United States of America has always had a dark history of medical experimentation with the African American community. From the the founding of the medical field of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1889 to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment of 1932, African Americans have been the sources of medical innovations for centuries. Although this is a seemingly beneficial attribute, each of the aforementioned events were the result of uninformed consent and gross medical malpractice in relation to physician-patient and researcher-participant relationships. In each case, African Americans were sought out and “practiced” on to discover ways to advance the medical field in the United States. Within the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot investigates the life of Henrietta Lacks and discovers the unfortunate reality of the history of uninformed experimentation on African Americans within the United States and the rise of bioethics in America. 

[Marion Sims, the father of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the United States] did not anesthetize [Black] women during these excruciatingly painful surgeries. His belief was that Black women, unlike upper class White women, could endure the pain at a higher level. During an 1857 lecture he said the surgeries were painful enough to justify the trouble. Sims, a slave owner, set the precedent for a practice that still continues to this day.

– Black Pain: Slavery & The Traumatic Roots Of Modern Gynecology (https://blackdoctor.org/490787/black-pain-slavery-the-traumatic-roots-of-modern-gynecology/)

In the unfortunate case of Henrietta Lacks, this patient presented with a severe case of cervical cancer in the form of a malignant tumor on the wall of her cervix. Before her death at the age of thirty-one, cells were collected from Mrs. Lacks’ cervix. These cells would go on to live a life that is more twice as long as their host and see a variety of nations as a result of their shipment to other nations in business transactions. Mrs. Lacks’ cells were found to be “immortal,” meaning her cancerous cells could be successfully cultured in petri dishes and live forever.

A discovery of this magnitude had never been achieved in the developed world. Mrs. Lacks’ cells begin to be cultured by the billions and used to research and cure a variety of maladies. However, Mrs. Lack was unaware that the cells had even been taken from her body and used to research other diseases.

Video Courtesy of John Hopkins School of Medicine: the hospital that treated Henrietta Lacks for her cervical cancer and harvested her “immortal” cells without her consent and knowledge.

My personal interest in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot stems from my interest in becoming a medical professional and from my identity as an African American woman. Moreover, the issue of medical experimentation and bioethics in relation to African Americans in the United States is of importance to me as I continue to learn about the medical injustices that African Americans continue to face in the present age of medicine.

The purpose of this blog is to share America’s truth regarding her medical history with African Americans. The case of Mrs. Henrietta Lacks is a paradigm of the ethical violations African Americans have faced in the name of medical advancement. Throughout this blog, the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot will be the primary text used to shed light on the life and identity of Henrietta Lacks outside of her appearance in the medical history of the United States. Juxtapositions will also be made between Mrs. Lacks’ case and those similar to hers as well as current medical issues related to ethics. The relevance of the information presented in this blog will also be used to view medical ethics through biblical texts like the Bible. This journey of truth will undoubtedly be one of conviction and revelation. However, I welcome each of you as you partner with me in taking the first step in The History of HeLa.


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