The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Technology and Globalization Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon

The history of the HeLa cell line is not simply a story of a single woman, a single family, or even a single field (cellular biology). It is, instead, the narrative of a world moving towards a modern, scientific age. To modern readers, the treatments enacted on Henrietta and the experiments carried out on many unknowing subjects are simply horrific. As the book moves forward, and as more and more innovations continue to come about through the HeLa cell line, we begin to understand just how far technology has come since the narrative began. The same medical establishment that didn’t even understand the dangers of radiation is, by the end of the book, producing blown-up, colored slides of single chromosomes. Henrietta is crucial to this narrative because it was only due to her cells that many of these innovations came about.

We also see, as HeLa becomes more and more common in the scientific world, how the forces of globalization begin to shape the narrative. Henrietta’s cells, for instance, eventually show up in Russia, and even go up into space. As her genetic material spreads from a single hospital to far-flung countries, we as readers are able to track how interconnected the world has become, and how crucial technology has become to every aspect of our lives. While the book often forces us to see the shades of gray within the medical establishment—a place that encourages privilege and often views patients as material rather than people—we still have to stop and wonder at the magnificent inventions that medicine has given us, and at the sheer scope of Henrietta’s reach. Her story is the story of modern science, one that has ups and downs, but has undoubtedly created some of the greatest miracles of the past half-century.

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Technology and Globalization Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Below you will find the important quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks related to the theme of Technology and Globalization.
Prologue Quotes

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

As she begins her story, the narrator--journalist Rebecca Skloot--reflects on its significance, and its personal effect on her. She emphasizes to her readers that this narrative is not simply about HeLa, the cells that revolutionized cellular biology, but about the human beings behind those cells.

Making clear that this will be a story of faith and family as well as science, Rebecca takes care to credit Henrietta's relatives--the very people who feel forgotten by history and by the medical establishment that profited off of her immortal cancer cells.

In so doing, Rebecca firmly states that her allegiance is to the descendants and their narrative, and that she means to harshly critique the medical establishment for the way it treated them. Although she by no means diminishes the scientific wonders achieved with Henrietta's cells, nor does she let doctors, researchers, and institutions off the hook for the bigoted and arrogant way that they treated both Henrietta and her relatives. 


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Chapter 1 Quotes

For Henrietta, walking into Hopkins was like entering a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language…she’d never heard the words cervix or biopsy. She didn’t read or write much, and she hadn’t studied science in school. She, like most black patients, only went to Hopkins when she thought she had no choice.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: Johns Hopkins
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca begins Henrietta's story at Johns Hopkins, a hospital renowned for its medical accomplishments and for its willingness to treat poor and minority patients. The narrative, however, questions Hopkins' inclusivity, noting how "foreign" and intimidating it would have seemed to Henrietta.

The narrator also takes this opportunity to introduce race as a vital and omnipresent theme throughout the book. She notes that many black patients viewed going to the hospital as a last resort, and later expands on the American medical establishment's long history of racism and unethical practices when it came to minority patients.

That Henrietta is willing to go go the hospital despite these circumstances also underlines just how sick she is. Although she fears the hospital, she is in too much pain to avoid going there any longer--an early sign of just how sick she is. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity...They kept growing like nothing anyone had ever seen, doubling the numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

With doctors having taken a sample of Henrietta's tissue, these cells now become a different entity from her entirely. While Henrietta is dying, her cancerous cells are thriving; in fact, they are "growing like nothing anyone had ever seen."

In this passage, Rebecca sounds almost hyperbolic, stating that Henrietta's cells seem to grow "with mythological intensity." She is not exaggerating, however. Instead, she is emphasizing for readers just how unprecedented this phenomenon was, and how awestruck researchers were when it occurred. In this way, Rebecca makes clear just how groundbreaking the discovery of HeLa was, foreshadowing the truly world-changing effect that it would have on multiple scientific fields. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. “When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Mary Kubicek (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa, Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

A research assistant at the time of Henrietta's death, Mary Kubicek recounts her patient's autopsy, recalling distinctly her shock and dismay at seeing Henrietta's "chipped bright red [nail]polish." It was only at this point, she recalls, that she realized how HeLa had come "from a live woman."

Mary's account shines a bright light on how easy it is for doctors and researchers to dehumanize their patients. Although Mary is a decent and moral person, she has only been working with Henrietta's cancer cells--which of course feel far removed from an actual person.

Henrietta's toenails, however, deliver a sharp rebuke to the young researcher. In that moment, she sees Henrietta not as a test subject, but as a human woman who--not too long ago--engaged in activities as relatable as painting her toenails.

The vast majority of researchers who work with HeLa, of course, have never had such an experience. To them, HeLa is merely a useful tool, rather than the final remnant of a now-dead woman. 

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. 

Chapter 17 Quotes

Every human being has an inalienable right to determine what shall be done with his own body. These patients then had a right to know…the contents of the syringe: and if this knowledge was to cause fear and anxiety or make them frightened, they had a right to be fearful and frightened and thus say NO to the experiment.

Related Characters: Louis Lefkowitz (speaker), Chester Southam
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Rebecca expands out, using the story of Rebecca Lacks as a lens through which to examine some of the most important and controversial issues in American medicine. In this case, the issue is informed consent. Rebecca describes the origins of the term, and the contentious disputes that led to its creation. 

In this case, Rebecca quotes Louis Lefkowitz, the Attorney General of New York State, and one of the first advocates for patients' rights. In this statement, Lefkowitz makes clear that every person has a right "to determine what shall be done with his own body," and to say no to any procedure that may be performed on them.

Intuitive as it may seem today, this level of consent was unheard of during the mid-twentieth century. Doctors believed that people did not know what was best for them and that as experts, they had the right to make decisions without consulting their own patients. This belief was definitely true in the case of Henrietta--both while treating her and when harvesting HeLa, her physicians never thought for a moment to explain to her what was going on, let alone obtain her consent. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

John Hopkin didn’t give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I don’t know if they didn’t give us information because they was making money out of it or if they was just wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling her cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Sonny Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca interviews Sonny, another one of the Lacks children. Here he expresses anger at what he views as Johns Hopkins' cover-up of HeLa, and their continued quest to keep the profits from the cell from the Lacks children.

Although Sonny's view is an overly simplified one, his indignation is absolutely justified. At the time of Rebecca's research, most of the Lackses still struggled to get by, often living from paycheck to paycheck. Most ironically of all, many members of the family had spotty insurance at best, meaning that they could not benefit from the very medical advances that originated from their mother's cells. 

At the same time, Sonny's anger also reflects a suspicion widespread in the African-American community towards the medical establishment. In many ways, Sonny does not trust doctors anymore than Henrietta did. He believes them to be deceitful, racist, and greedy--and although such a view is an exaggerated one, it is undoubtedly true that the medical establishment treated the Lacks family in an immensely unfair and prejudiced manner. 

Chapter 30 Quotes

Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cells—they get rich off our mother and we got nothing…All those damn people didn’t deserve her help as far as I’m concerned.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca and Deborah go to visit Zakariyya, Henrietta's disturbed youngest son, still fuming decades later over his mother's death, and the medical establishment's profit off of her cells.

Zakariyya articulates an attitude of rage, suspicion, and jealousy. He believes that the world is ot to cheat him, and that the researchers and patients who benefited from Henrietta's tissue "didn't deserve her help."

Yet although Zakariyya might seem unreasonable and even unhinged, he in fact has every reason to be angry. Destitute and mentally ill, Zakariyya's never recovered from his mother's death, undergoing years of abuse and neglect as a result. Yet while he suffered from Henrietta's demise, doctors, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies thrived, using her cells to make both medical advances and profits. Given this disparity, it is easy to understand Zakariyya's rage, and his belief that the world has cheated him out of both money and a mother. 

Chapter 31 Quotes

Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nothing bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

Deborah reflects on her mother's death, stating that she can't be "mad at science," because of how much it has benefited people in the twenty-first century, herself included. At the same time, though, Deborah wishes that she could have "health insurance" so that she could afford the drugs that Henrietta's cells "probably helped make." 

Although Deborah is uneducated and speaks plainly, she has here highlighted a tragic irony in the Lacks family's lives: that although their mother's cells helped to catapult modern medicine forward, they are too poor to benefit from many of those same advances.

At the same time, though, Deborah articulates an astounding amount of forgiveness and understanding. While Zakariyya and Sonny hate the medical establishment for supposedly cheating them out of HeLa profits, Deborah refuses to be "mad." She sees the bigger picture, realizing how much better off the world is due to HeLa. 

Chapter 32 Quotes

Deborah and Zakariyya stared at the screen like they’d gone into a trance, mouths open, cheeks sagging. It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.
[Deborah] raised the vial and touched it to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispered, “Just nobody knows it.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks, Joe Lacks (Zakariyya)
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

Within Christoph Lengauer's lab, Deborah and Zakariyya are able to look at a living sample of HeLa under a microscope. Rebecca reflects that they haven't come so close to "seeing their mother alive" in decades. 

In this passage, Rebecca perfectly marries the blend of personal and scientific that defines her narrative. Together, she and Lengauer have used the science of microscopes and cell replication to bring two adult children close to what they consider the spirit of their mother. By acknowledging the humanity of Zakariyya and Deborah, the reporter and the scientist have used science for a moment of emotional healing and connection.

Equally poignant and moving is Deborah's decision to tell her mother--through a vial of HeLa--that she is famous, although "nobody knows it." Clearly, Deborah believes that she is in the presence of her mother. Her first impulse, in this deeply profound moment, is to tell her mother about all the good she has done, and how she has changed the world. Unselfish and limitlessly giving, Deborah wishes above all that her mother--a poor, uneducated, black woman--could realize her staggering importance.