Get access

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Reconsidered


  • Vanessa Northington Gamble

  • Vanessa Northington Gamble is University Professor of Medical Humanities, George Washingtom University.


Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks received renewed attention in August after the National Institutes for Health reached an agreement with the Lacks family over the use of the HeLa genome. The book details how researchers took cancerous cervical cells from a poor black woman, without even telling Lacks or her family, and how the cells evolved into the scientifically significant and commercially lucrative HeLa cell line while the family continued their hardscrabble existence after her 1951 death. I am not a huge fan. How can I not love a book that has received stellar reviews and become mandatory reading at many colleges? One problem is that it views the history of African Americans in medicine and bioethics exclusively through the lens of exploitation, powerlessness, and victimization.