HeLa is the cell line that comes from Henrietta Lacks. It is “immortal”—meaning that it can continue to regenerate indefinitely if given nutrients and space to grow. To scientists, HeLa represents essentially endless possibility; it has been used in countless advances and innovations over the past half-century, and continues to be one of the most frequently used cell lines in the world. To Henrietta’s descendants, however, it represents a legacy of exploitation and racism, in which scientists profited off of pieces of Henrietta’s body while her descendants remain impoverished. Rebecca Skloot examines both sides of this puzzle, noting the medical miracles that HeLa helped researchers to achieve, while also taking an in-depth look at the negative effects that it had on Henrietta’s descendants. Ultimately Skloot comes to the conclusion that HeLa does have a deeply complex legacy, but that we must learn from it in order to continue advances in medicine while also leaving behind the racist, classist, and sexist policies that led to its existence in the first place.
HeLa Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
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.
Now I don’t know for sure if a spirit got Henrietta or if a doctor did it…but I do know that her cancer wasn’t no regular cancer, cause regular cancer don’t keep on growing after a person die.
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.”
Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?...I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.
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.
You know what is a myth?...Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.
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.
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.