A Forgotten Hero

A Forgotten Hero
A Forgotten Hero
A Forgotten Hero
A Forgotten Hero - Henrietta lacks - Henrietta lacks is a heroine of note; in her absence and presence she contributed more to science than most people. | Photo: James Faddis | Research, Contribution, Lacks, Henrietta,

Henrietta Lacks

There are a number of forgotten heroes in history throughout the world. Some of them had an impact on the current world in general and others have been part of a specific incident. One such person was mentioned in the media in 2013 once, and was never heard of again. Rebecca Skloot wrote a book about her, which is called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. This book seems to be the only decent documentation, and research done on this matter. This hero, or rather heroine, to this day, had an impact on the lives of others, and should be regarded as one of Americas remarkable historical figures as well. Her name should appear in all historical books in order to make up for this atrocious violation of rights as a woman, as well as a Black woman.

The tragedy about this story is that it remains a non-issue with a wide majority of people, particularly in the USA where Henrietta lived as a disadvantaged person.She died of cancer in 1951 at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The doctors at the time realized that her cells had a special contribution to make toward cancer research, and overstepped ethical boundaries toward their own gain. It is important to keep this debate and knowledge of medical "fraud" alive. Obtaining tissue samples from her corpse, without the consent of the family, is a huge ethical faux pas. Added to that is that she was not given the credit for her contribution to the massive research that occurred. This cannot be undone, but it needs to be addressed in the so-called enlightened century in which we live.

What makes this even more tragic is that Henrietta'a family only discovered that her cells were harvested in the interviews with the author., Skloot. The tragedy is that, even in their own ignorance, a family member cried out the reality of what a mere cell means. Skloot quoted one of the family members, Bobette, as saying: "Part of your mother, it's still alive!" This is the epitome of the atrocious behaviour of the scientists, Dr. TeLinde, and Chester Southam (Virologist). They did not just stop at harvesting, but went further, by injecting millions of HeLa cells in cancer patients without their consent too. Skloot mentions in her book that these doctors were lucky not to have lived under the Nazi regime. They would have been killed, as the German doctors were, for experimenting on the Jews without their consent.

The cells were known as the HeLa cells, or the immortal cells. One could assume that "HeLa" referred to her name Henrietta Lacks. The cells were special as it would grow at a faster rate than normal cells, so much so that decades later, these cells are still being used in research, hence, its alternate name as immortal cells. The controversy was that, at the time the cells were harvested, it was without Henrietta's consent, or her family's consent. The use of these cells today was still done without their consent. If one looks at the way the matter was dealt with, the assumption would be that there was no ignorance, but a deliberate, and triumphal march toward lining the pockets of the already privileged few.

It was just not a coincidence, but a deliberate step to take because the family was Black, and poor. Would this have been done, had the person been White, and rich? These issues need to be addressed by simply giving Henrietta Lacks the deserved mention for her contribution to the research. If two Nobel prizes were handed to these unethical researchers, should she not be given a Nobel prize too, for her contribution?

In 2013 the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg continued their disregard of the family, by publishing their research online for the entire world to examine. This was even more of a deliberate attempt to overstep their boundaries as responsible scientists. At the time of the first harvesting of the cells, there was no confidentiality law in place to protect people – especially Black people – against such exploitation. However, in 2013, there were laws in place, and it needed to be enforced. It would seem that there is very little ethics left when it comes to the Lacks family. Perhaps one would assume that the attitude is "what they do not know, cannot hurt them." There is no way that one can continue to turn a blind eye to Henrietta Lacks' vital contribution.

Henrietta Lacks is a heroine of note, in her absence and presence, she contributed more to science than most people. Even though she has a school named after her – the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, and the book by Skloot – it is hardly enough. It is important to establish her contribution to world research as memorable.

More should be done to keep her contribution fresh in the minds of the world. It is a huge deal, and as much as the scientists were given Nobel Prizes for their contribution to scientific research, she too should be given one, because without her the scientist would not have achieved such a reward. Without her none of the research, then and now, would have been possible.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:27 PM EST | More details


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