Black History Fun Fact Friday – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

OK so this is a re-run lol. This has been a challenging week for me personally. I am still trying to catch up on some work so I’ll pick it up with a new Fun Fact next week (have some ideas for me? I’d love to hear them!) In the meantime, I’ve chosen this one to repost. I thought it would be great for those who are new to this blog or who have not yet read this episode (The badge below is the old one. I decided not to replace it with the new one since this is a re-post).

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Originally Published February 27, 2015

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Now, today is a special Friday because we’re going to be talking about a special woman in history. She’s a special study because there is not a lot of information on her. While technology has blessed us with the internet so that we no longer have to sit through 500 page books and encyclopedias, the best way to really research her life is actually through books and I have a very good one for you to check out. It is because of this book that search engines are just now coughing up information about it. I didn’t really intend on doing another book recommendation, but this one goes hand in hand with last week’s post so much so I could not help it. It is almost a single example that alone validates Harriet’s study. For last week’s post, Medical Apartheid, Click Here.

marcusMany of you have heard of her in biology class. Yes, biology. Except you were never told her real name. I’m sure we have all heard of her. If you’ve ever sat through a class on cells and heard the term HeLa, you’ve heard of her. Your science professor more than likely described it like this:

“A HeLa cell, also Hela or hela cell, is a cell type in an immortal cell line used in scientific research. It is the oldest and most commonly used human cell line. “

And that was probably the extent of the explanation. There is even a scientific name for HeLa, it’s called Helacyton Gartleri.

HeLa cells were the first line of human cells to survive in vitro (in a test tube). The cells were taken from tissue samples and grown by a researcher named Dr. George Gey in 1951. Dr. Gey quickly realized that some of the cells were different from normal cells. While those died, they just kept on growing. After more than 50 years, there are now billions and billions of HeLa cells in laboratories all over the world. It’s the most commonly used cell line, and it’s known to be extremely resilient.

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In 1951, a black woman was diagnosed with an aggressive cervical cancer, and when she died, doctors took her cells without permission and these cells never died. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells became the foundation to groundbreaking research. From developing the polio vaccine, to cloning, to gene mapping, her cells helped to make blood pressure medicines, antidepressant pills; they helped to develop drugs for treating  herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease, etch, etch.

The fact that HeLa cells have been used in some very important medical research is interesting enough, but there’s another part of the story — and that part is why Oprah might be making a movie about HeLa. Henrietta Lacks had no idea that her cells were taken and used in this way, and neither did her family. And while the cells became commercialized (researchers can buy a vial of them for $250) Lacks’ family has lived without healthcare and in poverty. Since Henrietta never knew about the usage of her cells and neither did her children know about the usage and sell of her cells, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a story  about her contribution to medical research, so much as the ethics of biomedical research and the practice of informed consent. Rebecca  Skloot describes in detail, with the help of thousands of hours of interviews,  with family members and friends of Lack’s, lawyers, ethicist, scientists, Journalist who wrote about the Lack’s family, extensive archival photos, documents, scientific and historical research, and the personal journal of Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, how one woman’s cells continues to live on outside of her body longer than they ever did inside of her body. Meanwhile, her family knew nothing about it.

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Nostalgia

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I didn’t always drink coffee, but the first cup was so delicious, made with the expertise of a veteran coffee drinker some years back, that I incorporated caffeine into my daily schedule and like a feign sought to mimic it’s deliciousness. But this morning, as I poured the warm goodness and integrated it with Carmel Vanilla Cream, something unexpected happened. Ok so yes I was thinking about Blogging but not that. I was, however, brought back to those early days. Suddenly, I tasted of the past and images hurried to my thoughts like a wave of epiphany. With each sip it is as if I tasted of conversation and laughed at jokes once long faded away in memory. It reminded me of an article I read last week about scientist finally admitting that memory is stored in the DNA, and I do believe it’s true. Even if we cannot remember a moment, I believe we still live it in some way. Maybe we mimic the actions of what we can neither speak nor recall. Maybe something makes us laugh and we cannot explain why. Or perhaps there was an experience so traumatic that it disintegrated into our very skin, but is no longer accessible through the mind. Why is it that when we recall the past we include ourselves even if we had not lived it? “We were slaves” I say of my history, though I have never been anyone’s property and neither have I picked of anyone’s cotton. Could it be that this experience was genetically passed on to me? Indeed, I believe so. For who am I to be so arrogant as to believe I inherited my mother’s nose and not my ancestors ways? Their thoughts? Their promises?

Memory, like water it is an interesting thing. A substance that we use daily, that we cannot live without, and that we have even named and yet, we know nothing about it. For what is H2O really? I laugh at the boldness of man to think he has all the answers, and yet the things we use on a daily basis is still foreign to us. So, Nostalgia, the bringing forth of memory we either despise or long to experience again, perhaps it is much deeper than we think, and yet closer too.

Race Doesn’t Exist

French physician Francois Bernier was the first to use the word “race” as a category for scientifically classifying humans in a 1684 essay titled “A New Division of the Earth, According to the Different Species or Races of Men Who Inhabit It”.


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In addition, Johan Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), a medical professor in Germany, argued that human beings fall into five races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. He argued that Caucasians derived from the Caucasus Mountain region and embodied the ideal human from which the others degenerated. It was a popular belief that Caucasians were the ideal form based on a skull that had been found in the Caucasus Mountains, near the alleged location of Noah’s ark. What this classification achieved is the setting up of a color line. Blumenbach classified five chief races of mankind and by attributing psychological value and importance to race; this became what we know as racism.

Science has a lot to do with the usage of “race” to identify a people. Although there is uncertainty in the title about the correctness of the term “race” versus “species” to classify human variation, Bernier relied on categories based on outward physical characteristics such as skin color.

Carolus_Linnaeus_(cleaned_up_version)A prime example is Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus’ system of biological classifications in Systemae Naturae, published in 1735. Linnaean taxonomy is the system of scientific classification of plants and animals now widely used in the biological sciences. He formalized the distinction among the continental populations of the world and his work helped characterize the concept of race. In the tenth edition of Systemae Naturae, which was published in 1758, Linnaeus projected four subcategories of Homo sapiens: Americanus; Asiaticus; Africanus; and Europeanus. In short, the moral components of race–such as beliefs, values, etc., were not as prevalent where racial hierarchy was already established by slavery, but the word race was a general term that was used interchangeably with species, sort, type or variety. This is why there is no such thing as a race of people.

crayons-labThe concept of Race is a new ideology and has not always been with us. Genesis Chapter 10, known as The Table of Nations, gives an example of how people were split into nations and lands and language, not races. In fact, “definitions of who is black vary quite sharply from country to country, and for this reason people in other countries often express consternation about our definition.” (F. James Davis). What has happened then? How has a nation of people now become a race of people? They told you about a brown man, a black man, a yellow man, a red man, and a white man. It’s as if they took their crayons and painted us the colors of their expectations. After coloring they began the tasks of assigning these colors to class and certain geological locations in that they may properly identify them. Not necessarily so that these people may identify themselves, but so that racial superiority would reign supreme.

6a00d83420747353ef01a511c3312b970c-320wiThe U.S. Census Bureau defines race as “a social category recognized by the United States and does not attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically”. The Census Bureau recognizes five categories of race: White (people with origins in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa,) Black or African American (Africa), American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. The census also includes a Hispanic ethnic category. It is an ethnic category rather than a race category because the Latino community is said to include many races, such as White, Black, Native American, Asian, and mixed.

The truth is that every single person on the face of the earth belongs to a nation of people, as he was so divided since the beginning, and thus he falls into whatever family according to his nationality. Every people have a nation to which they belong, followed by a specific set of laws, customs, and traditions separated only by land and this is why race does not exist, because there’s no such thing as a race of people. Sure, we may use the term for understanding sake, one may say “my race is..” so that the person next to him gets it, but he does not really belong to a race, he belongs to a nation. Prejudices, Biases, and oppression of one people who feel superior over another people does exist, but race within the concept to which we’ve grown to know it, does not.