I never heard of Henrietta Lacks until a few days ago. But I have heard of the Tuskeegee Experiment in which 399 Black men were used as clinical samples for studying the late stages of syphilis. The men who were poor sharecroppers from Alabama, where never told they had syphilis and no doubt died horrible painful deaths for an illness which was treatable but not for them.
Henrietta Lack’s stolen cells is another experiment without consent. In February 1951 Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer at John Hopkins hospital. Nine months later she was dead. During her treatment – what treatment she received is not clear, tissue samples were removed without her knowledge and consent and handed over to Dr George Gey.
Ms. Lacks’ cells were different. Her tumor grew so aggressively that at her autopsy, just eight months after the cells were removed, it was found that her cancer had infiltrated her entire body.
These extraordinary growth properties, while deadly for Henrietta, were probably what brought success to Gey. He was able to keep the cells growing in a dish long-term, and he soon found himself sending samples to other scientists who wanted to study human cells, who then passed them on to their colleagues, and so on and so on.
The cells became known as HeLa cell line and have been used extensively in research from developing the polio vaccine to research for cancer . HeLe cells were able to travel by air and hands so other cell cultures were also found with HeLe. But it gets worse – 25 years after her death members of her family were contacted and told about the stolen cells and asked to provide blood samples for further research. What was the truth about her “treatment”? Was she herself injected with other diseases or poisons? Even if it was just the cells, without her consent and when she was still alive, it is obscene.
The experiments sound like something out of a sci-fi movie except these were real. Henrietta’s life and death and that of her family were all violated by science. The US has a history of using humans as live experiments and that many more poor, working class and Black people as well as prisoners, orphans and soldiers were subjected to medical experiments of one kind or other continues. As late as 2001 children in foster care in New York were used for AIDS drugs trials – some as young as 3 months old.
HT: Malaika H Kambon for posting this on FB