Home > Uncategorized > Injustice… Or Completely by Accident?

Injustice… Or Completely by Accident?

When the nuclear bomb was developed, the world trembled under the notion that the United States had procured what was most likely the most volatile weapon the world had ever seen. Yet, while most give credit to the US as the creators the bomb and fail to recognize the individual scientists, mathematicians, and physicists involved in the Manhattan Project. When a discovery of such magnitude is unveiled, it’s really no surprise that the intricate details are overlooked.

Similarly, when the HeLa cells were discovered and, considering the extreme racism at the time, who would actually take the time to pay heed to a poor black woman? None can doubt the fact that Lacks was basically the progenitor of one of science’s most revolutionary discoveries; but, once again, when such a massive step is taken its difficult to regard many details.

Ultimately, I feel that hospitals’ and doctors’ failure to pay tribute to Henrietta’s family was by accident. I honestly don’t support their indecisiveness in repaying them once they realized their mistake, but I do believe that they were too caught up in the moment. It’s an unfortunate mistake, but, realistically speaking, who doesn’t make mistakes?

I would really like some feedback on this matter. I don’t want to be the only one defending (to a certain extent) the hospitals and doctors!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. September 10, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    I agree, and I disagree.

    I think you are right, momster, with your insinuation that oftentimes science and technological advances are taken for granted. Our society today, our every move was in one way, shape, or form established by individuals who worked in labs to develop important products to make our lives easier and more efficient. The achievements of the Johns Hopkins Hospital scientists are, of course, noteworthy; as Rebecca Skloot pointed out numerous times, the HeLa cells have proved to be extremely essential in hundreds of groundbreaking science experiements over the course of the past five or so decades.

    Ms. Skloot also pointed out another interesting area of this story: the human element. While she is a science writer, she was keen to make this piece of literature function as a novel, blending nonfiction with creativity and an engaging plot line. As I mentioned in class, the part of “The Immortal Life” that really spoke to me was the struggle, hardship, and tremendous loss that Henrietta Lack’s family experienced as a result of their race. It is my belief that, had the owner of the HeLa cells not been black, the story may have been different. In fact, there may have not been a story at all. Yes, the HeLa cells were important, and yes, the scientists were eager to learn and explore and use the cells in order to push society in a positive direction. But isn’t it peculiar that while Henrietta’s cells were being used to further the world of health care across the globe, her descendants could not even afford health care? Frankly, it’s outrageous. And to me, it speaks to the general selfishness of scientists–not all, just these ones in particular–who are dedicated to having their names appear in print. Let me reiterate: the scientists in Skloot’s book deserve credit for their achievements. However, it seems to me extremely unethical that, because during the 50’s and 60’s, African Americans were considered subpar to white, or Caucasian Americans, Henrietta’s children and grandchildren were not informed, let alone compensated, for the tremendous breakthroughs that her cells provided.

    Science is important to society, and so are scientists. Nobody can argue that. But I do think that there exists a serious legal loophole in this nation, even today, that does not mandate scientists to notify their patients if their cells (or other body parts, for that matter,) have any particular scienfic merit. This argument was mentioned in another post: yes, future laws may provide protection for the patient, but will they delay further scientific progress?

    I certainly think this is a relevant conversation, especially in this day and age, when science is constantly speeding forward at such a tremendous speed. I am surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion of the topic on a national level. Maybe Rebecca Skloot’s novel will encourage some future debate…

  2. September 11, 2011 at 12:31 am

    I enjoyed reading your post – it provides a distinctively thoughtful interpretation of the controversial relationship between Henrietta and the scientific community. First and foremost, I am intrigued by the comparison drawn between nuclear weaponry and cell culture. At first glance, it seems almost inappropriate to associate a tool of catastrophic destruction with a medical breakthrough of nearly unlimited life-saving potential. However, upon further consideration, I was also able to appreciate both advancements as equally important in terms of their unique historical contexts. The development and ultimate implementation of thermonuclear artillery was as much a triumph for mid 20th-century chemists as was the successful cultivation of the first immortal human cell line for biologists.

    In the wake of such groundbreaking scientific discoveries, the role of the individual is oftentimes lost in the excitement surrounding the actual innovation. Over 60 years after the attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the development of the hydrogen bomb is generally credited to the will of the American people. Similarly, the biological community as a whole is implicated in the growth of the HeLa culture. Although George Gey made little effort to credit the human source of the immortal cells, his own name is no more recognizable to the masses than is that of Henrietta Lacks. Gey, like the majority of his contemporaries, was interested not in glory, but in medical progress. Likewise, Richard Tolman, James Conant, and the other directors of the Manhattan Project received little fame for their years of dedicated service. It therefore comes as no surprise that Henrietta, who had died long before her cells made headlines, remained in obscurity for so many years. While the misfortune surrounding Mrs. Lacks and her kin is a tragedy, it is by no means a product of intentionally malicious behavior. At the end of the day, the professionals involved with HeLa should not be condemned for any disrespect towards the individual, but instead must be praised for their unparalleled contributions towards mankind.

  3. September 11, 2011 at 1:01 am

    I understand where you are coming from in defending the hospitals and doctors in their failure to recognize Henrietta, though I’m not sure if I agree with your reasoning. I don’t necessarily think that they didn’t recognize her because they were distracted, but because it was not custom at the time to pay attention to whom the cells used for research were taken from. As stated in the book, it was common to take cells from patients to be tested, and the initials of the patient were used to mark them. From that point on, the patient was no longer involved in the medical research being conducted. Any discoveries based on that research did not necessarily have to be linked to the specific patient. Because of this, I can understand why Henrietta was not credited for the contribution of the HeLa cells.

  4. September 11, 2011 at 2:35 am

    I partially agree with lindsayann on this topic. I think that the reason that Henrietta Lacks was not associated with the HeLa cells initially was simply because, at that time, the doctor-patient relationship was so radically different than it is today. With the development of the internet and a cultural shift towards a desire for “understanding,” people have become more conscious of their interactions with one another. If you want proof of this, all you have to do is look to old slang. A little over half a decade ago, it was socially acceptable to use the “N-word” in reference to people with darker skin; now however, it is probably one of the biggest social taboos, outside of some rap music. It has gotten to the point now where a 9 year-old boy* can even be accused of being a racist! In my personal opinion, we, as a culture, have taken the valid and correct idea of equality for everyone too far to where we are now overly sensitive (but again, that is my opinion).
    But I think it is important to note that racism did have something to do with the problem. African-Americans were treated very poorly during this time. With the Jim Crow laws and the Plessy v Ferguson decision** of “separate but equal,” Henrietta went to the “colored-only exam room” of the “colored ward[s]” at Johns Hopkins Hospital. With these social conditions, it is conceivable that the doctors and other medical staff was less attentive to Henrietta than they would have been to a white woman. Indeed, there were communication failures when dealing with Mrs. Lacks, such as when the doctors neglected to mention that her X-ray therapy would render her infertile (see pages 48-49 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). But as sad and unfortunate as this mistreatment was, I did not get the sense that it was overt racism that supressed and spearated Henrietta’s identity from the HeLa cells.
    Rebecca Skloot’s books addresses many issues, from racism to the development of science in the last half century. While reading her book I found that Skloot’s own emotions and feeling came through the text. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it does present a very important issue, that Skloot’s opinions could contaminate the objectivity of the book. While nothing is comletely objective, it is clear that Rebecca Skloot has her own opinions on the the life and experiences of Henrietta Lacks, her cells and her family. I therefore urge everyone to just take a moment and think about these events in history realize that the cultural norms of the time(s) were different and, while that does not make it right to treat people different because of the color of their skin, it does offer explanations for the way people acted the way they did.

    * http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1215563/Accused-racist-year-old-boy-aimed-fingers-Polish-pal-said-Lets-shoot-Germans.html

    ** http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/acs/1890s/plessy/plessy.html

  5. September 11, 2011 at 3:19 am

    I would quickly like to make a correction. In my reference to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I would like to refer you to page 15 in looking at the reference to the “colored-only exam room.”

  6. September 11, 2011 at 7:30 am

    I agree with your reasoning on a possible reason why hospitals’ and doctors’ failed to recognize Henrietta Lacks. At the time, telling her or her family about her unique cells was not going to help Henrietta in any way. Their main focus should have been treating Henrietta with the best care possible. However, that of course was not possible since Henrietta was African American. I also do agree that the professionals’ disregard could also be a factor of discrimination. It honestly was thought of as the norm. Besides that not just Henrietta’s cells but all of the patients from whom the cells were taken were referred to a number. The fact that Henrietta’s cells had proven to be different did not change the protocol that some doctors and scientists have to follow. In the end, I don’t think the doctors’ or hospitals’ are the ones to blame but the system itself.

    • September 12, 2011 at 2:15 am

      I tend to agree with Priyanka that this was indeed a failure of a larger system rather than the actions of the individuals involved. While I recognize the presence of discrimination in Henrietta’s situation, I am not particularly inclined to believe that this was a factor in her treatment either. As Priyanka and many others have noted, the samples ceased to have any human identity once taken. This same scientific detachment was applied across the board for the sake of disinterest; one can never afford to take any personal interest with research subjects, regardless of race. This being said, the “problem with the system” may not be so great as we perceive it. Undoubtedly, the practices were unethical by today’s standards but through their own perspective, the researchers and doctors did nothing unusual. Medicine at this time, it must be understood, was incredibly deferential. Patients most frequently took advice from doctors without the need or even desire for the reasoning. It was common practice for doctors to simply perform procedures or administer medication with little to no explanation. The human body was largely a mystery to the layman and, as others have pointed out, the doctor/patient relationship was a wildly different beast at that time. Concerns about Henrietta’s treatment based on her race are, for this reason, largely unfounded. The quality of staff and amenities may have been inferior in the “Blacks Only” ward of John Hopkins, but that does not necessarily mean the level of care itself was lower if performed to the best of everyone’s ability. Many poor white patients would receive similar care in their own hospitals simply because of the resources to which they had access. Now by no means am I commenting on the justness of this– another conversation for a different time– but the fact remains that race was not the main factor in Henrietta’s treatment both as a patient and a sample. In the end, I maintain that any ethical issues raised were largely the fault of a larger system and while individual responsibility should not be ignored in these cases– nor should the blind adherence to authority serve as an excuse for ethical capriciousness– one can not be censured for failing to follow rules that have yet to be written.

  7. September 11, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    You mentioned how “extreme racism” plays a role in the doctors not giving Henrietta’s family any compensation. Lets not forget that there were others, white folks, who attempted to sue for ownership of the products of their body and did not win. Although racism may have played a role in the history of the HeLa cells, let’s not be so quick to consider it the main cause of this injustice.

    However, the crimes of the Tuskegee Institute are different. Those are rooted in racism because they viewed blacks as expendable and disposable lab rats to use in their medical experiments, no matter how dangerous they are. That is racism. In Henrietta’s case, she did not face to the fullest extent of the racism of the 1950s.

  8. September 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    I am sorry to disagree, momster, but my interpretation of the reading is that in fact, these doctors knew perfectly the level of ingorance (perfectly portrayed by Skloot) of the Lacks family. They knew perfectly that this was their golden chance of making a fortune and as long as they could keep it low, everything would be alright. It is simple, we all think that same way, as long as we don’t get caught..its fine. However, I also agree in the sense that I believe that we should give second chances to everyone; and we should not be bias towards an already settled point of view such as that of Skloot. We should be able to take out our own interpretations, and I’m just pointing out my understanding, which might be arguably wrong, but I think that this is no accident.

    • Danika
      September 11, 2011 at 8:55 pm

      Aletorio, I’m curious as to what part of the text makes you think “[these doctors] knew perfectly that this was their golden chance of making a fortune and as long as they could keep it low, everything would be alright.”

      First, are you talking about Gey? About Lacks’ attending physicians? or someone else?
      Second, does your reading bear up? Where in the text do you feel you are lead to believe (or feel that the implication is there, even if Skloot doesn’t pursue it) that Gey or Henrietta’s doctors were seeking profit?

  9. September 11, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    momster, I can see where you are coming from to a certain extent, however I still don’t feel it was okay to treat her in such a way. I agree with aletorio that these doctors knew exactly what they were doing when it came to giving credit. Also I think that details in a major scientific finding are more significant than normal because of how big of a deal they can be eventually turn in to. To give credit where credit is due is extremely important because it really aids the remembrance of such great concepts and people, like Henrietta. So no, I do not find it understandable the way they treated her and her family, even if it was just a mistake.

  10. September 11, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Fregler6, I see what you are getting at but, like I mentioned, I completely disagree with the hospitals’ treatment of the Lacks family after the discovery of their mistake. And to further stress the point I was trying to prove, I feel its worth mentioning that generally, there are very few people that associate the Human Genome Project with any single individual (rather, the United States Department of Energy is recognized as the instigator of the project) neither do many people credit Kalashnikov as the creator of the Kalashnikov rifle (in fact, the Soviet Union did not give him any rewards for his tremendous discovery). Mind you, these were all discoveries made in the 20th century, so the excuse that appropriate methods for documenting these discoveries is completely irrelevant.

    With further evidence of this so-called “ignorance”, is my point any clearer? I mean, if we are going to berate Johns Hopkins and other hospitals for failing to praise Henrietta Lacks as the mother of the first (as far as we know) immortal cell, shouldn’t we also accuse the American government for taking credit for the Manhattan Project? Why should the American government be recognized as the creator of WMD’s when most of the work was actually done by a relatively small group of scientists?

  11. September 12, 2011 at 1:34 am

    I find it particularly shocking when some posts insult the scientists as if they took the HeLa cells just to spite Henrietta and then exploited them to make millions; they used these cells to better the world. These cells became the tools that lead to the discovery of medicines and vaccines that have saved millions of lives, these scientists did not sell the cells and attempt to become celebrities, they distributed the cells free of charge because they knew how important they could be to future of medicine. Nobody accuses Dr. Kings of doing what he did because he liked the attention, he did what he did because he saw the injustice that was going on in country and felt it was his job to stop it; while it may be a stretch Gey and his fellow scientists were very similar to Dr. King in this respect, they didn’t do what they did for the fame or the money, they did what they did because it was the right thing to do to better the world in which we live.

  12. Sean
    September 12, 2011 at 2:45 am

    I believe that you are both right and wrong. First, I can see how the doctors didn’t pay any recognition to the source of the cells because with the instant fury with the recognition of the first immortal cell. Doctors obviously would run to that in a fury, not caring where they came from, but just wanting to get their hands on it so that they can perform research. Also, with the fact there really weren’t strong rules and regulations on patient treatment, especially blacks, that they believe they followed protocol. So at the beginning of this process I believe that it was acceptable not to notice Henrietta.

    But after time, names of people involved in the Manhatten Project were released to the public. This is where the doctors lose their excuse because after things slowed down a bit, they should have realized that they needed to give Henrietta’s family recognition and some of the compensation that came with selling those cells. The doctors threw their morals aside and left the family in the dark which was sad and pathetic on the doctor’s parts.

  13. September 12, 2011 at 4:31 am

    The doctors who treated her intentionally left out her name because they knew that her cells were gonna be famous and that people would want to contact the owner of them; so they left her name out to give her and her family privacy. I feel they decided to keep it quiet not so much because they didn’t ask for permission for the cells but because the patient was no longer alive to give them permission to release her name. They told her before she died that her cells would be famous and would help people later on down; and she was happy about it but they failed to ask about whether her name would like to be released. So i feel that it’s not a factor of racism nor a mistake in general.

    • Danika
      September 13, 2011 at 11:34 pm

      I’ve already posed this question in comments, but I’ll pose it again: did anyone tell Lacks that her cells would be famous? Do you believe Aurelian’s account? (note that I believe that Aurelian believes Aurelian’s account, but I think that says more about Aurelian’s values and needs than it does about the historical events.

  14. September 13, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    I agree with lindsayann about her point that it was common for patients to have cells taken and then from that point on not have them involved in the study. I also believe that it was not by accident that doctors and resarchers disregarded the person behind the HeLa cells. In fact, I believe that it was more on purpose. Oh the other hand, it is difficult to take a decisive side on whether or not the intentions behind being forgetful were good or bad. While some people point out that racism could be behind forgetting to aknowledge the person behind the cells, it may be bold to say that people might have assumed that it was a white person and that the possibility of the cells coming from a black person had not even crossed their mind. If it had, the possibility of having a black person play such a crucial role in science may have been the reason, but it could not have been the only reason. I believe that the doctors “forgetting” to look into the person behind the cells was on purpose because of the type of job doctors and researchers have. Dealing with cancer and illness and seeing pain and suffering every day is not an easy job by any means. In order to cope with their work, I believe that doctors take personal precautions to be less in touch with their patients. After all, doctors do the best they can, but often that is not enough. Even the very best doctors have patients die for reasons they might not be able to explain. For their own moral, I think doctors have to separate themselves. Imagine the majority of your relationships being sick or terminally ill and then having to watch them all die. That would suck.
    On the other hand, I do believe that doctors can have better relationships with their patients. Having some sympathy is necessary, but not too much. I think people often forget how emotionally taxing being a doctor is and that dealing with sick people is difficult. And with Henrietta Lacks, researches all around the world, as does the whole world, is indebted to Henrietta because without her cells, all the progress we’ve made might have not been possible. By the time the family found out, I do believe that researchers should have given them some concessions/condolences once they found out. The dehumanization of patients to a small degree, I believe is acceptable, but at that late stage, when the whole world was using HeLa cells, I don’t think that the treatment of the Lacks family was appropriate.
    I think that Skloot is trying to emphasize the importance of Henrietta’s role because she wrote an entire book dedicated to Henrietta’s life, as she even states in the book itself. But as Oskar.S said, the whole world owes the handful of people who participated in the genome project, and those participants didnt get books written about them. Ultimately, I do believe that there was injustice in Hentrietta’s case and that the poor treatment of the Lack’s family should have been righted.

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