"This was the era of Jim Crow -- when black people showed up at white-only hospitals, the staff was likely to send them away, even if it meant they might die in the parking lot."
– Rebecca Skloot, from "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"
Henrietta Lacks lived a bizarre, remarkable, tragic life. She was born in Roanoke, Va., one of 10 children in an impoverished African-American family. Listen to the craziness described in just these three sentences from her Wikipedia page:
When Lacks was four years old in 1924 her mother died giving birth to her tenth child. Unable to care for the children alone after his wife's death, Lacks's father moved the family to Clover, Virginia, where the children were distributed among relatives. Lacks ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks, in a two-story log cabin that was once the slave quarters on the plantation that had been owned by Lacks's white great-grandfather and great-uncle. She shared a room with her nine-year-old cousin and future husband, David "Day" Lacks (1915–2002).
Henrietta had her first child, a son, at age 14, it seems while sharing a bedroom with her cousin. Henrietta's oldest daughter had developmental disabilities and died as a teenager after four brutal years in an institution.
A few months after her daughter was committed, Henrietta, at the age of 31, asked to be admitted at Johns Hopkins for perpetual abdominal pain. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and remained in the hospital for nearly two months before dying of uremic poisoning. According to a partial autopsy, almost none of her organs were unaffected by the uncommonly widespread cancer in her body.
More of the medical background from the University of Washington's Clarence Spigner:
As a matter of routine, samples of her cervix were removed without permission. George Otto Gey (1899-1970), a cancer researcher at Hopkins had been trying for years to study cancer cells, but his task proved difficult because cells died in vitro (outside the body). The sample of cells Henrietta Lacks’s doctor made available to Gey, however, did not die. Instead they continued to divide and multiply. The He-La cell line was born. He-La was a conflagration of Henrietta Lacks.
Permission for doctors to use anyone’s cells or body tissue at that time was traditionally not obtained, especially from patients seeking care in public hospitals. The irony was that Johns Hopkins (1795-1873), an abolitionist and philanthropist, founded the hospital in 1889 to make medical care available to the poor. Informed Consent as a doctrine came into practice in the late 1970s, nearly three decades after Henrietta Lack’s death. The new practice grew out of the embarrassment over WWII Nazi medical experiments and the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment of 1932-1972.
The revelation decades later that Henrietta's cells "lived on" and were being used for such astonishingly vast medical research was hard on her surviving family members, both for the personal invasion (for example, according to Spigner: "Evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen (1935-2010) reported the He-La cells had developed into a new species and was no longer human. To Deborah, such crude unqualified information meant her mother was somewhere in a man-made hell.") and for the large sums of money that had been earned through the theft of Henrietta's body.
In 2012, a band from Brooklyn called Yeasayer (pronounced Yay-sayer, like the opposite of a naysayer) wrote and released a song, "Henrietta," based on Lacks' life after vocalist and songwriter Chris Keating read Rebecca Skloot's landmark book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
Close your eyes, listen to the music, take a bath in the harmonies at the end, and give Henrietta Lacks a few minutes of gratitude by thinking about her.
Fever in the night, and the tremors come on
But it's you who'll survive, just like nobody thought
Nails turning red, lying cold on the bed
And now it turns out, death's not the end
She was a bone, we sharpened our teeth
A magnificent drone, was serving under our feet
You'll be making me rich, he'll throw you away
And after he's gone, oh HeLa's here to stay
Radiation makes you weak, tired okays leave your speech
The world owes more than they'll pay, in the wind I heard them say...
Oh, Henrietta, we can live on forever...