The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

•February 18, 2010 • 4 Comments

“Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multi-million dollar industry. More than 20 years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.”

A recent post at Black Looks reminded me of a fascinating story I came across in one of my earliest courses in medical anthropology. The story is that of Henrietta Lacks, a 31 year old poor black woman from Baltimore, Maryland (USA) who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. During her illness, Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells were taken from her body without her permission, and following her death, her case became among the most famous examples of ‘bad’ medical ethics particularly where race and class were involved.

Coincidentally, a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (February 2010) explores, in greater depth, the story of “a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors” and whose cells, the ‘HeLa’ line, (as they came to be known in science) “became one of the most important tools in medicine.”

The HeLa cells were the first of their kind. In fact:

Those cells became the first human tissue to replicate indefinitely in test tubes, launching a series of revolutions in medicine. The value of the so-called HeLa cell line that sprung from Lacks’ tumor is incalculable: Its resilience and rapid growth made it ideal for testing Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, developing numerous cancer drugs, studying basic cellular processes, and honing experimental methods now standard in biology. Over the years, Lacks’ cells have been sold for $10 to as much as $10,000 a vial—and her chronically impoverished family has received nothing.

Sixty years after Lacks’ cells were taken from her in a ‘blacks only’ ward at Johns Hopkins hospital, her ‘immortal’ cells (they are still growing even today) continue to be bought and propagated in research labs around the world by the billions. They have helped to eradicate polio, develop cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization, and were tested in nuclear sites worldwide. HeLa cells have been immeasurably important to cancer research for decades. However, Lacks’ own family did not learn of her medical legacy until 20 years after her death when they were also unethically recruited into HeLa research. Despite her monumental contribution to science, her children and grandchildren were all reared in poverty and too often without health insurance.” In the words of Lacks’s youngest daughter, Deborah: “If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?”

Lacks’ case has for years raised questions about racism and health and of course concerns about medical compensation and distributive justice for patients and families. Science, of course, continues to be shaped by the inequalities presented by race, class and gender, particularly the surveillance of certain types of bodies over others, and there are numerous other cases to demonstrate this. Incidentally, I also came across a recent TIME article ‘Why Racial Profiling Persists in Medical Research’ (August 2009) which investigates how race, a social construct, is interpreted in biological research and how it subsequently defines science.

Wanuri Kahiu

•January 27, 2010 • 9 Comments

If you have read my blog before then you must know that I love to highlight visionary African women. Visionary Kenyan women are even more exciting to feature. Wanuri Kahiu definitely falls into this category.

As an accomplished film maker and the director of Pumzi, Kenya’s first science-fiction film, she is setting the cinema scene abuzz with one of three African films showing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (film and art enthusiasts also check out African Digital Art and Sci-Cultura for Pumzi and more). The 23 minute film:

…imagines a dystopian future 35 years after water wars have torn the world apart. East African survivors of the ecological devastation remain locked away in contained communities, but a young woman in possession of a germinating seed struggles against the governing council to bring the plant to Earth’s ruined surface.

As the Executive Director of Dada Productions, she has also been involved in writing and directing other productions. Her film From a Whisper, based on the 1998 Kenyan and Tanzanian bombings, won her 5 African Movie Academy Awards in 2009. In Ras Star, the story of a young Kenyan girl aspiring to be a musician, she was able to explore issues around women’s freedom and participation in African society.

Of her own work, she says:

I write and direct films that challenge and inspire the human spirit to re-unite and remember. I believe that the union of people and the integration of cultures through stories are beneficial to all.

Wanuri lives to tell to tell modern African stories with a fresh sense of style and meaning,” and we hope that she continues to have amazing opportunities to express and document Kenyan imagination, innovation, narratives and artistry for both local and international audiences. Her work is also featured at the (very cool) International Museum of Women.

Check out the Pumzi trailer here:

On Black Sisters’ Street

•July 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment


After coming across this book a few times on the shelves, I finally decided to pick up ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ by Chika Unigwe, having read some good reviews. I’m glad I did.

In brief, it is the story of four different women who leave their African homes to pursue the riches of Europe in Antwerp’s red light district.

This was an excellent read. I loved the way Unigwe managed to tell the stories of each woman so colourfully and so vividly. This book was difficult to put down, it flowed from one page to the next. I particularly loved her deliberate and eloquent use of pidgin throughout the book, as illustrated by Dele, the sinister Lagos pimp, boasting of his girls:

“All my gals, I treat good. I dey tell dem before dem comot…Me I be good man. I just try to help poor gals…I get three lined up. Dem full for front, full for back. I swear, dem go drive oyibo mad. Na beauty queen statistics dem get. You sabi as my gals dey dey nah, no gorrilas I dey supply. Na beauty queens. Gals wey carry double Jennifer Lopez nyash.”

Even though ‘On Black Sisters’ Street’ focuses on a very sensitive and unsettling theme, Unigwe is able to depict a highly nuanced narrative of each character, employing humor as she explores the realities and complexities of sex trafficking. A must-read for all lovers of contemporary African writing!

Note: This post was originally published on my tumblr site