The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Short Summary by Karen Ben-Moyal

Written for summer assignment over book with same title; Circa. August 14, 2011. (Summer before becoming a College Freshman, summer after my 2011 high school class graduation): Before I knew anything at all.

But as such are the Seeds of our Society, I first planted in my own journey; which have since become obviously rooted out of one of the perplexed; who’ve witnessed and contributed to the inevitable, or in the watering, growing, and understanding, wisdom necessary for the finishing of the work the Future Souls in the Garden began long ago:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Science calls her HeLa and she’s all over the world in medical facilities, in all the computers and the Internet everywhere.” Henrietta Lacks’ daughter, Deborah Lacks, quoted those words about her mother. In the biography, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author, Rebecca Skloot, writes about three different stories. The one that spoke the most to me was the story of scientific discovery in the treatment of cervical cancer and the other medical advances that resulted in research of the cells. This path of discovery is so important because the cells of Henrietta Lacks have helped save millions of lives. The contributions that the HeLa cells made unto our society are numerous, vast, and ever expanding. In other words, Henrietta’s unintentional, anonymous gift to mankind has continued breaking grounds to this day in the universe of medicine; An unbelievable advancement that has since stunned research scientists all over the globe.

After Henrietta Lacks’ tumor was taken out of her body and studied, it became apparent how useful her cells were. Her cells were special because they would never die and divided an unlimited number of times. Scientists named them HeLa. “Today it’s possible for scientists to immortalize cells by exposing them to certain viruses or chemicals, but very few cells have become immortal on their own as Henrietta’s did.” (Skloot 213) These special cells were studied by scientists in the eighties that were focusing on HPV infection. They discovered that HPV leads to cervical cancer. This research led to the development of the HPV vaccine. It is amazing how the HeLa cells contributed to not only to the development of the HPV vaccine, but many other scientific advancements. 

Among the hundreds of contributions the HeLa cells have had on effectively leading to the betterment of mankind, Henrietta’s cancer cells have shown to be tremendous in the fields of scientifically enhancement of wisdom from research studied within the lab, which has made way for further knowledge obtained revolving the effects and reverential causes that radiation treatments have stemmed into today. “The skin from Henrietta’s breasts to her pelvis was charred a deep black from the radiation. The rest of her body was its natural shade-more the color of fawn than coal.” (Skloot 48) The detrimental effects of radiation were apparent on Henrietta Lacks’ body. This, along with further research of the HeLa cells, led scientists to a better understanding of what radiation treatments can do to a human. One of these effects is infertility, also shown in Henrietta. Even though Henrietta Lacks’ had to suffer so much, if it were not for her, many other people would be suffering right now as well. One of the most important innovations that resulted in research from the HeLa cells was the creation of the polio vaccine. In the fifties, polio was a huge problem for people around the world. In 1952, scientists used the HeLa cells to help develop the vaccine for polio. Her cells were bought and sold by the billions in order to find a way to prevent the disease. Scientists vigorously tested the cells to try and find a vaccine and eventually succeeded. Henrietta’s special cells helped millions of people protect themselves from polio.

If it weren’t for the HeLa cells, the HPV vaccine wouldn’t exist. Millions of women would have never found the vaccine for cervical cancer prevention, the number one cancer women have consistently developed and died from throughout the ages, (myself included), as it would have never been invented. Indeed, we have Henrietta Lacks to thank for it. The cures and research that have resulted from HeLa cells have touched the lives of those that have diseases like polio or AIDS. It has advanced us scientifically by the discovery of cloning.

Even though Henrietta’s HeLa cells were obtained after her death once her battle with cervical cancer was seemingly lost in 1952, the same cells which were taken in a time of immense grief and tragedy for the Lacks family, have remarkably survived throughout the ages to live on into the 21st century. As Henrietta’s cancer cells continue ever multiplying and dividing to this day, one could assume Henrietta still survives within this world, out of darkness, a light has triumphed in refusing to lose a war of the highest honor. As HeLa cells continue to reproduce, one could say that Henrietta survives, Mrs. Lacks lives on in our Herculean universe. Finally, one can say for certain that HeLa cells have already helped mankind in numerous medical inventions, saved more lives than ever before, and thus become a marker of heroism at its most selfless hour. As Henrietta’s cells carry on in beating the odds of one in trillion, HeLa cells refusing to die in a new dawning of another era, one can unveil the blatant symbolism between the will of an unwavering, terminal illness and diagnosis, which led to the shocking immortality, we’ve all witnessed before our own eyes, now and forever, in science and in nature, ever since 1952. All the while, these heinous, evil cancerous cells transformed into courageous, CURE for cancer cells, symbolizing, of course, the resilience and bravery of the strong mortal woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was once the mere vessel of a terminal diagnosis which killed her body. But, for the first time science has seen, these cells have broken the grounds and opened the doors to years and years of innovation, hundreds of medical cures, generations later. In fact, posterity everywhere are to be grateful for Henrietta’s humble, unknowing contribution to our society, and we must therefore remember her story, for the sake of Her Honor, for the sake of all future cures to come, and for the rise in advancements of health, science, and technology, and anything peaceful resulting in the future cures and treatments of new and old diseases; all in which some have already been discovered, thanks to Henrietta, and all which are to be discovered ahead. We all owe a great deal to the knowledge that HeLa cells infused into our global society, we owe it to humanity, and to our Almighty Creator, to Mrs. Lacks and her descendants, and our own descendants, to remain increasing the wave lengths of this ever growing ripple effect, that of which started with one, divided in two, and has since multiplied itself into an eternal gift to mankind. Breaking down barriers and creating new horizons for many generations to come; It speaks to you how profound a change one woman can have on the world, without even knowing.