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Constance Alexander: Medical exploitation of minorities has a long history in America

She never asked for much, and would likely have been happy to see her kids grow up and do well for themselves. She might have hoped they’d get more education, have more opportunities than she and her husband had had. Maybe, instead of a lifetime of backbreaking work growing tobacco, the future of her children would include jobs with decent pay, doing work that was not restricted to tasks white people wouldn’t touch, like shoveling coal and breathing in toxic coal dust and asbestos.

Sadly, Henrietta Lacks never got much of a peek at what lay ahead. At 31, when she died of cervical cancer, she left her husband and five children behind, the youngest just a year old.

Without Henrietta’s knowledge, a section of the tumor that killed her was given to Dr. George Gey. The Johns Hopkins researcher was trying to find cells that would live indefinitely in culture, to be experimented on and studied. Before Henrietta Lacks, Gey’s efforts had failed, but in the end her cells multiplied non-stop and never died.

Unbeknownst to her, Henrietta’s cells were harvested and used for medical research. The cells were instrumental in the development of the first polio vaccine and were launched into space for experiments in zero gravity. Her cancer cells helped produce drugs for numerous diseases, including Parkinson’s and leukemia, all without her explicit permission or any benefit to her family.

Today, they are bought and sold around the world, generating millions in profits for others.

The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks is just one story in a history of medical mistreatment of minorities dating back centuries. Medical experimentation was often based on racist and inhumane assumptions that blacks were biologically inferior and did not experience pain the way whites did.

Even in the 1950s, when Mrs. Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, routine medical care was not available for most African Americans. Many doctors refused to treat them. Even in prestigious institutions like Johns Hopkins, there were separate wards for black patients. Treatment was available only on certain days, and operating rooms were segregated.

Much of the “research” that routinely took place using African Americans without their consent did not become public for many years. Both women and men were used as lab rats. The Tuskegee Experiment, for instance, was a clinical study that lasted from 1932 to 1972. Six-hundred impoverished African American sharecroppers, more than half suffering from syphilis, were given free medical care, meals and burial insurance in exchange for participation. Those with the disease were not told they had it, nor were they given penicillin to treat it. In the end, many of the men died from the disease, some passing it on to their wives.

In the 19th century, Dr. J. Marion Sims, the so-called Father of Modern Gynecology, used enslaved black women for his studies. The doctor, a Southern-born slaveholder, did not use anesthesia in his experiments, and the only permission received was from the slave owner who had a strong financial interest in their recovery.

This kind of treatment has been called “medical Apartheid,” part of a shameful history that stretches far back into the past, and also includes forced sterilization of black women.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” an award-winning non-fiction book by Rebecca Skloot, offers a compelling combination of history, science, and ethics, demonstrating the racist assault on one black woman and her family, in an environment that never gave a thought to humane treatment and informed consent.

The author first learned about the immortal cell line, known in medical labs around the world as HeLa, in a community college biology class. Her instructor, Donald Defler, wrote the name Henrietta Lacks on the board and said that her cancer cells were one of the most important things that had happened to medicine in the past hundred years. He explained the role those ever-multiplying cells played in an array of medical milestones. After presenting the information, he erased “Henrietta Lacks” from the board and blew the chalk from his hands.

For an overview about the history of medical exploitation of minorities in America, check out thehill.com. Information about the book is at rebeccaskloot.com.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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