Henrietta Lacks Book Report Essay

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is based off of how an author named Rebecca Skloot, describes learning about an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 as a result of cervical cancer, but her cancerous cells became the first immortal human cell line, which would be known as Hela. Rebecca explains how HeLa made some of the most important discoveries possible in the 21st century. Rebecca then introduces Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, who turns out to be a key figure in the book.

In the beginning of the story, Rebecca narrates Henrietta’s first visits the Johns Hopkins hospital, where doctors first tell her she is fine, but they would eventually diagnose her with cervical cancer which will result in her having to be treated with radiation. Rebecca explains that Johns Hopkins was one of the best hospitals in the country, but that its employees were extremely prejudice towards African Americans. Rebecca then later on traces Henrietta’s heritage line back to the town of Clover, VA, explaining how Henrietta met her husband, who turns out to be her cousin, Day.

Henrietta and Day had a daughter named Elsie, who was born with mental disabilities, and she was put into an asylum called Crownsville where she died. Throughout the story, Rebecca explains more and more about cervical cancer research and the treatments that were used in the 1950s, before moving on to the practice of cell culturing. Doctors such as George Gey, who worked at Hopkins, were seeking to create a unique breed of human cells that could regenerate eternally. The doctors were having little success with their project because they lacked the complete knowledge of the subject which continued to result in their failure.

Gey was then given a sample of Henrietta’s cervical tissue by her doctors, without her knowledge of course, and her cancer cells began to grow at an unusual rate. Henrietta’s cells began to flourish, however, her condition kept progressively growing more fragile. The story then jumps to 1999, where Rebecca begins attempting to contact the Lackses, she is cautiously aided by Professor Roland Pattillo, an academic success at Morehouse College who knows the Lackses, but fears that Rebecca is another racist journalist who is out to exploit them. Rebecca begins calling Deborah every day, as well as her two brothers, Lawrence and Sonny.

Back in 1951, George Gey began publicizing Hela and sending it to many different researchers around the world, but he does not make any sort of profit from this. Meanwhile, Henrietta’s condition was growing worse by the day, until the doctors pronounce that her tumor has progressed to the point of inoperability. Rebecca traveled to Baltimore, where the Lackses were residents at the time, and encountered Courtney Speed, who was a local woman that was determined to publicize Henrietta’s story. Meanwhile in September 1951, Henrietta’s condition worse than ever before, causing her to die a month later in October.

The doctors at Hopkins pressured Day into allowing them to perform an autopsy on her so that they may study her cells further. Her family buried her in a grave that had not been marked. Hela continues to thrive, aiding researchers in creating a polio vaccine, and leading to the first ever operation to produce human cells on a massive scale. Scientists began using those cells to study viruses, the genetics of humans, various drugs, environmental stress, and vitamins. Journalists began questioning Henrietta’s true identity, and eventually wrote an article about her using the name Helen Lane, which was obviously wrong.

Without their mother, Henrietta’s children were left with her cousin who was very abusive. All the children suffered from this but Henrietta’s youngest child, Joe, who had suffered the most from their current living conditions. Shortly after Henrietta’s death, Joe became a troubled child who is always finding ways to get himself into trouble. Rebecca continued to explore Henrietta’s heritage, noticing that though her family was descended from white plantation owners and enslaved women, the clan were strictly divided into white Lackses and black Lackses, who never mix.

A man under the name Chester Southam, injected Hela and different cancer cells into patients without their knowledge. He became well known for his unethical practices. This process was officially banned by the New York Medical Board of Regents. The case then started a debate over questions of medical consent. As this conflict raged on, Hela became far more widespread, contaminating hundreds of other cell lines. Henrietta’s children grew up and began having children of their own. Joe, the child who always got himself into trouble, was convicted for murder and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

It is in prison that Joe converted to Islamic religion and changes his name to Zakariyya. In the present day, Rebecca finally got to meet Lawrence, Sonny, and Day, all of whom were furious over the fact that others are profiting off of Henrietta’s cells while they live in poverty. Rebecca remembered when the family first found out about HeLa, and described their shock and confusion. Eventually Hopkins contacted them to study their own genetic information, but never explained why. Deborah was afraid of this because she believed that they were testing to see if she would die like her mother.