The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Tuskegee Institute Symbol Icon

Of all the symbols within the book, the Tuskegee Institute has one of the most dramatically double-sided legacies. On one hand, Tuskegee was the site of the cell-production factory where a staff of black, female technicians produced HeLa in order to help cure polio. This represented a huge and public step forward for African Americans and women, as these technicians became an integral part of one of the most celebrated medical advances of the 21st century. Yet at the same time, Tuskegee was also the home of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, one of the most infamously racist studies in American history, in which hundreds of black men were allowed to suffer and die from syphilis in the name of science. Thus Tuskegee represents on one hand the ways in which the medical establishment can aid underrepresented groups such as minorities and women, and on the other emblemizes the extent to which doctors victimized these same groups.

Tuskegee Institute Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quotes below all refer to the symbol of Tuskegee Institute. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Random House edition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks published in 2010.
Chapter 13 Quotes

Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies…

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: Tuskegee Institute
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in her narrative, Rebecca broadens out, moving from Henrietta's personal story to HeLa's initial effects on modern medicine. Even as she does so, however, she makes sure to stay focused on one of her main themes: race and science in America. 

In this passage, Rebecca spotlights the effort to discover a polio vaccine. In order to do so, researchers needed to mass-produce large amounts of HeLa, a task that fell to the black, largely female "scientists and technicians" of the Tuskegee Institute.

On one hand, this moment is an uplifting and optimistic one, as black women use "cells from a black woman" to help end the plague of polio which had been afflicting "millions of Americans." Yet there is a terrible irony in this effort's location: the Tuskegee Institute is also infamous for its syphilis studies, which involved letting huge numbers of black men go untreated and die in an effort by white researchers to further understand the STD. Thus, on one campus and at the same time, racial progress and deadly racism co-existed. 

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Tuskegee Institute Symbol Timeline in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The timeline below shows where the symbol Tuskegee Institute appears in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 6: “Lady’s on the Phone”
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
...the mistreatment of African Americans by the scientific establishment. She fills readers in about the Tuskegee Institute scandal, in which U.S. Public Health officials watched black men die of syphilis. They... (full context)
Chapter 13: The HeLa Factory
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
...hears about HeLa and contracts William Scherer to create a HeLa Distribution Center at the Tuskegee Institute, “one of the most prestigious black universities in the country.” They choose this organization... (full context)
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
These developments eventually outgrow the TuskegeeInstitute’s production mechanism. At this point, a biotech company called Microbiological Associates gets involved. Its owners... (full context)
Chapter 23: “It’s Alive”
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
Bobbette is shocked and appalled; she flashes back to the Tuskegee syphilis study, and begins to panic, thinking that researchers will soon come for Henrietta’s children... (full context)