From the President’s Bookshelf: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
John H. Garvey, University President
May 1, 2012
Filed under Quill
Last week I read a story in the LA Times about soldiers who posed mockingly for photos with the remains of an insurgent suicide bomber. The Times published the photos with the story. For many people, seeing the photos really struck a nerve. Seeing the bodies of others so mistreated violated a deeply held moral intuition about the respect we should show for the human body. Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone explores this moral intuition. When Antigone’s brother is refused a proper burial and left to be consumed by animals and birds by order of the king, she risks almost certain death in order to place him in a tomb. Antigone’s story doesn’t end well, and we may think that giving up her life for the body of a man who was already dead was rather extreme. But the importance of the moral intuition she acted on endures. Today we don’t expect to face death in honoring the human body. But advances in science and medicine have opened up a new and complicated moral frontier where we would do well to remember the lesson of Antigone.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a modern day tale that reminds us to do just that. The story is about Henrietta Lacks, known by generations of scientists, students, and researchers as “HeLa,” the first human cells to survive and reproduce in a culture. Before HeLa scientists had tried for decades to keep human cells alive, without success. Because of the cells that doctors took from Henrietta just before her death from cancer, scientists have made incredible advances, like the development of a polio vaccine, chemotherapy, and gene mapping. The cells have been used to find drugs to treat herpes, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease, and to improve our understanding of appendicitis, mosquito mating, and human longevity. They even went up in the first space missions. Though she died in 1951, trillions of Henrietta’s cells live on in laboratories around the world.
But the research side of HeLa is only half the story. The scientific advances brought about by the use of Henrietta’s cells are juxtaposed to the stories of her children and husband, who, like Henrietta, were unaware that in 1951, shortly before her death, her cells had been harvested for research by doctors in the hospital where she was treated. Raised in poverty in rural Virginia, Henrietta’s children never fully understood what happened when their mother tragically died. When they discovered, many years after her death, that her cells lived on in laboratories around the world, they feared that she had been a victim of human experimentation or some other form of exploitation. They wondered how their mother’s cells could have been at the center of so many valuable medical discoveries, while they remained unable to afford basic health insurance. For years they were plagued with anxiety about HeLa, wondering if the continued life of her cells meant that she could not rest in peace.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating book that opens up the discussion about the moral difficulties we face in light of the rapid advances in science and technology of the past century. To her credit, Skloot does not try to answer every question she asks. Simply by telling the story of the Lacks family, she underscores her important message: however we go about solving these moral quandaries, we must not lose sight of human dignity. Cells and tissue that are harvested for scientific research were once a part of someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s wife. It is difficult to calculate what kind of difference that should make in how we perform research, but it should make a difference.
Look for future editions of “From the President’s Bookshelf” on Quill in Fall, 2012.