Free Custom «Critique of the Book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot» Essay Paper

Free Custom «Critique of the Book


At the first sight in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot, using different time intervals, describes the life of Henrietta Lacks. The book is divided into three parts. In the first part “Life”, the author narrates the destiny of the heroine who became ill with cervical cancer and died for this reason. However, before her death, the doctors took samples of her cancer cells that appeared to be immortal. These cells were called HeLa and were used for the research worldwide while the relatives of Henrietta had not possessed any information about it for almost twenty years. In the second part “Death”, Skloot mentions how pharmaceutical companies have earned through their sale while Henrietta’s family has not received money. The author also describes the lives of the ancestors and descendants of the heroine particularly describing in detail the fate of her husband and children after her death. In the third part “Immortality”, Skloot tells how she was working on the material for writing a book with familiar people of Henrietta, notably with her daughter Deborah. Special attention is paid to the description of how not only the cells HeLa, but the name of Henrietta became immortal.

However, a deeper revision of the book helps to understand that this is only “the tip of the iceberg”. This is a dramatic story about the fate of a simple woman who gave the world her immortal cells, difficult life of African Americans, honest and dishonest doctors, court battles, development of medicine, and birth of bioethics. The author raises a number of problems that together with the story itself deserve special consideration.


The author’s general theme is an attitude to a person. Every individual should not be observed as the screw of the mechanism, or the material for the research. A human is not only a biological membrane consisting of cells. Conversely, every individual is the personality deserving the respect and humanistic attitude. However, considering the example of Henrietta Lacks Skloot, it should be noted that that the researchers were interested only in her cells. For a long time, they had not given a tribute of the memory to a woman whose samples have helped the science to develop. Moreover, the heroine’s doctors agreed that “the cell strain should be referred to as HeLa and that the patient’s name should not be used” (Skloot, 2010, p. 138). As it turned out after twenty years from the date of her death, not only “her tumor had been misdiagnosed” (Skloot, 2010, p. 212). But “this was the first time Henrietta’s real name appeared in print” (Skloot, 2010, p. 213).

The book presents a number of the issues. The first ethical problem is the necessity to ask the patient’s permission to take samples of tissue. According to Ross Jones, assistant to the president of Hopkins, “scientists…did not seek permission to use tissue removed as part of diagnostic and treatment procedures” (Skloot, 2010, p. 294). The law and ethics allowed doctors not to ask it from the living patients (Skloot, 2010, p. 120). However, the tissues are the parts of the human body and, in the case of Henrietta Lacks, were taken for investigation. Thus, Gey “had spent the last three decades working to grow malignant cells outside the body” (Skloot, 2010, p. 53); therefore, “he took any cells he could get his hands on” (Skloot, 2010, p. 54). Consequently, Henrietta’s immortal cells appeared to be commercially interesting and usable in various fields. Thereby, on the one hand, it affects the rights and opportunities of the doctors to develop medical knowledge. On the other hand, the issue is the right of people to dispose their bodies and their parts by themselves or with the help of their relatives.

The second ethical problem is the usage of the patients for the research without informing them. Thus, many scientists believed that once the patients were treated free of charge in the public hospitals, it was fair to use them as the experimental subjects as well as a kind of payment (Skloot, 2010, p. 53). However, such an attitude to the people is not only inhumane but also may lead to the serious consequences for their health and even lives.

The third ethical problem is the need to ask permission for publishing materials about the patients, including their photos or personal data. For example, magazines printed Henrietta’s photo but “no one had ever asked permission to publish it” (Skloot, 2010, p. 232). In addition, without ant authorization, Gold printed Henrietta’s medical records in his book (Skloot, 2010, p. 254). However, everyone should have the right to inviolability of private life. And only a person or family can decide how to deal with personal items or information.

The legal issue is directly linked to these ethical problems. It consists in the absence of legal regulations and decisions of the above mentioned questions. Nowadays “publishing medical records without permission could violate federal law”. But at that time, the Nuremberg Code, the American Medical Association Code of Ethics, and the Hippocratic Oath “which clearly said that doctors should keep patient information confidential” were not legal (Skloot, 2010, p. 278).

The book raises the racial problem that lies in different position to people of different races. Skloot emphasizes that “segregation was law, and it was understood that black people didn’t question white people’s professional judgment” (2010, p. 90). Black patients were hospitalized and treated in the later stages of the disease than white patients. They received fewer painkillers, and their mortality rate was higher (Skloot, 2010, p. 91). However, this problem raises the question concerning the injustice of such treatment. Moreover, the author notes that the problem still exists. For example, “one of the first things Cootie said [her] was, “You don’t act strange around me cause I’m black. You’re not from around here.” (Skloot, 2010, p. 159).

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The class problem is that these poor people, such as Henrietta Lacks, received a bad treatment. An example of such attitude is also the story of Elsie, the eldest daughter of Henrietta, who died in the hospital for the mentally ill patients. The hospital did not have “the money to take care of black people”. Therefore, the patients, including Elsie, were in terrible conditions (Skloot, 2010, p. 350).

Family and religious issues do not occupy the last place in the book. The first one concerns family values, education, and the relationship among the relatives. It is important in this respect to pay attention to the education of Henrietta’s children after her death. Their relative Ethel dealt with this matter, but due to her attitude “children grew up hungry” (Skloot, 2010, p. 144). She “woke them at dawn to clean the house, cook, shop, and do the laundry”. Moreover, she “beat Joe [the youngest child] for no reason” and “tied him up with rope and left him down there for hours” (Skloot, 2010, p. 145). Consequently, Joe became an angry person, killed a man, and was imprisoned. Another problem is the sexual relationship between the cousins which resulted in the birth of sick children. For example, Henrietta’s children “got a touch of nerve deafness on account of [their] mother and father being cousins and having the syphilis” (Skloot, 2010, p. 345).

The religious problem lies in the faith of Henrietta’s family in her power, even after her death. They “believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its path” (Skloot, 2010, p. 27). An example is also the healing of Deborah by her cousin Gary through the prayer (Skloot, 2010, p. 366). The question is how the physical and spiritual beginnings are connected.   

Scientific and, in particular, medical problem consists of the features of studies practiced at that time. Researchers encountered many difficulties and made the incredible discoveries. However, sometimes they had to break the law or ethical standards. The book shows how difficult it is to see the distinction between those that will be beneficial to the individual, society, or science. Despite everything, Henrietta’s cells “allowed scientists to perform experiments that would have been impossible with a living human” (Skloot, 2010, p. 85). And even her children were pleased that she had brought enormous benefits to the people.


The author’s opinion is that the name of Henrietta Lacks should be the same immortal as her cells HeLa. Rebecca Skloot proves that it is necessary to respect the personality and rights of the heroine and her relatives. There should be no inequality among people based on their race, social status, or beliefs. Doctors and researchers, in their turn, should apply to people based on the principles of humanism, equality, and inviolability of private life.

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The presentation is considered to be more subjective than objective, but it was factual. An indication of such statements is that while writing the book, the author communicated with the relatives and close people of Henrietta. Their memories were the main source of the author, but not because she did not use the other facts. The reason is that human sensations, words, opinions, and attitudes were more important to the author than the other sources. In other words, she relies on the human side of the issue. She formed “a deep personal bond” with Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, and they became a character in the stories of each other (Skloot, 2010, p. 26). In addition, Rebecca Skloot befriended with the other members of the family. This proves that even her relation to the sources was subjective and the opinion of some people affected her more than the other arguments. The writer describes in detail the conversation with them. However, she does not provide, for example, the conversations with the doctors or researchers.

Another evidence of the subjectivity is the essence of the book as well as the history of Henrietta Lacks and her family. Skloot clearly sympathizes with her main characters. For example, she was very excited and happy that Deborah and she managed to find the information about Elsie (Skloot, 2010, p. 346). And the reason was not that it was important for her book, but that she was not indifferent to the fate of her heroes.

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In her book, Rebecca Skloot does not rest on the story of HeLa cells, but on the history of their owner. She wants to reveal to people the personality of Henrietta Lacks stating that she was a woman with her difficulties and sorrow. Even the epigraph demonstrates the author’s attitude to the problems of the book. Skloot wrote the words of Elie Wiesel that “we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph” (2010, p. 16). It proves that a human is a personality, and his life is the highest value. While using these words, the author suggests that people should be appreciated higher than science, and their contribution should be respected.

Moreover, according to the author, it was “not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family – particularly Deborah” (Skloot, 2010, p. 27). It proves that the human side of the issue has become more important to her than the medical one.

Moreover, an indicator of subjectivity is the author’s attitude to what is ultimately immortal, namely HeLa cells or a human. Skloot answers this question by the fact that she wrote about the study of cells preferably in the second chapter called “Death”. But the third chapter “Immortality” is dedicated to perpetuating the memory of Henrietta Lacks. Thus, the author condemns those who believe that it is important to remember only the information about the cells and scientific achievements.

On the other hand, Skloot tried to be factual because she explored the testimony of other witnesses and medical data. She communicated with doctors, studied scientific articles, books, and films. In addition, the author cites the example of numerous stories about the life of people not related to Henrietta. It is the description of the lives of doctors, researchers, patients who have fought for their rights, lawyers, and scams. Skloot provided the materials of litigation about the use of people or their tissues for the research without their permission. The author made the multifaceted research. She stated that it was “a decadelong adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals, and mental institutions”. There was “a cast of characters that would include Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist” (Skloot, 2010, p. 26).

Considering the author’s conclusions and recommendations, it is possible to accept her arguments and reasons. However, it is impossible to agree with the style of her history presentation. Concerning the first statement, it is worth noting that while reading this book, one may unwittingly empathize with its main characters. They had a hard life, and deserve understanding and respect as every individual. Moreover, Henrietta Lacks, in particular, deserves to be known and remembered.

Another conclusion of the author that should be agreed is that the human life should prevail. Neither research nor scientific achievements should overshadow its values. It particularly concerns the process of conducting the experiments on humans. Legal norms should strictly regulate these issues and punish the offenders.

However, the basic principle of the book that should be agreed is the equality of people regardless of race, religion, economic status, or political opinion. People should have the right to receive adequate social welfare and medical assistance.

One should agree with a family problem that the author explored. It concerns particularly he causal link between the education of children and the way they are raised. The book teaches to the right principles stating that it is important to pay attention to children and not to use physical violence.

However, the second point of the narrative style of the author causes disagreement. Firstly, Skloot’s attitude to the question is subjective and she clearly supports Henrietta’s family. However, she did not disclose the essence of the other sources. Moreover, if the author described in detail one direction, she had to depict the downside in the same way.

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Secondly, the book is difficult to read because different time frames are not described in the chronological order. However, if the author had described the events of temporary order, the story would not have lost its appeal and filing.  

In conclusion, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot is the dramatic scientific research, which interesting to read. It asks the vital question, namely who is eligible for human’s body, its parts, or a biomaterial, taken for analysis – a human, doctors, or the scientists? HeLa cells helped to develop the polio vaccine, reveal the secrets of cancer, viruses, and the impact of a nuclear explosion. They were used to make significant steps in the study of artificial fertilization, cloning, and compiling genetic maps. Moreover, they inevitably became the subject of “sale”: someone became rich while others were unaware that they were the objects of the “experience”. In fact, the book reveals the poor quality of care, inhumane medical experiments, medical ethics, and general information about people. The stories about people’s life and problems are the most interesting. They are alive, and each of them is valuable and original. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, the memory about this woman must be eternal as her cells.



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