With Black History Month coming to an end I think it is important to give credit where credit is due. Every year when this month comes around, we hear about the same notable people; Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson and many more. But very seldom do we hear the name Henrietta Lacks. Honestly, unless you are in the medical field or in a biology class, you may never even hear her name. That is where I believe a change should be made.
Henrietta was born on August 1, 1920 in Virginia and she died thirty one years later on October 4, 1951- but her cells live on in research labs across the world to this very day. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer early 1951 and was diagnosed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. There, she and her family were also robbed, lied to, and cheated because they were minorities.
The book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the heart wrenching and moving story of Henrietta’s life and how science and the medical field got rich off of her cells without her permission and continued to sell her cells for years without her family knowing or receiving any credit for the groundbreaking discovery. Her cervical cancer cells are the source of the HeLa cell line, and research done with them contributed to numerous important scientific advances that we use everyday in our world today. Anyone who knows someone with cancer or has had cancer themselves can thank the Lacks family for any progression with the disease. It was her cells that were used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans, in order to keep the survival rate of cancer patients high.
The book also reflects the issue of taking advantage of minorities and people who lack education. During this time period if she had been the exact same age, had the same name, same height and weight but had the white skin instead of black, she would have received better and more accurate treatment, she would have been asked permission to collect her cells, her family would have been educated on what her cells were being used for and been able to accept credit for them, and the world would know her as “Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells saved cancer research” and not as merely a “HeLa cell.”
In that period of history, finding cheap medical assistance was challenging for black people, so Henrietta took what she could get. She never challenged or questioned her doctors, but with this being said, there was no due diligence from her doctors side. It is important for us to recognize the reflection between what happened seventy years ago to what is happening in our world today. While receiving medical assistance is more easily accessible to anyone now, other aspects of our lives are more challenging for minorities than we think they are. With this being said, this is the perfect time to recognize the problems in our society and work towards improving them for a better, united, future.