NEW YORK – Before Henrietta Lacks died of a case of cervical cancer in 1951, experts and doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore removed some of her cancerous cells to help them grow outside her body in a petri dish.
If all of you were unaware of this untold tale before, please read on.
Dubbed HeLa, the name adopted for the cell line from the 31-year-old African-American woman became one of the most utilized procedures in medical research. This helped establish billion dollar biomedical industries around the world for cancer treatment, vaccines (including Johan Salk’s polio inoculation), and was even used in vitro fertilization, all without her knowledge or formal consent.
Fighting poverty and racism in Baltimore, Lack’s family accidentally discovered this truth years later. Along with writer Rebecca Skloot’s subsequent account, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which sky-rocketed to public attention earlier this decennium, spending a total of 75 whole weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list, a huge public outcry broke out on the ethics of harvesting people’s cells.
World-renowned star, Oprah Winfrey, has now helped bring the story of Lacks and her “immortal” cell line to the front stage in an HBO film adaptation of the book that debuted on Saturday to a mix of reviews from critics and readers.
The narrative of the story focuses on Skloot’s interactions with Winfrey, who plays Lacks’s daughter Deborah. She is a toddler when her mother dies and with keen suspicion of the project stays ever-eager to learn about her mother’s death against a backdrop of wild conspiracy theories.
“I was really afraid to do this role,” Winfrey said this week during a promotional tour with the director George Wolfe. “I said from day one, George, I don’t want to make a fool of myself.”
One of the ways the country’s most influential public figures and a reluctant Winfrey was able to measure up to the role was by reliving her life as a longtime campaigner against sexual assault.
“I came from a life of abuse,” she said.
This seemed to work for her in perfect parallel with Henrietta Lacks’ unfolding tale, where she had to embody her daughter Deborah’s (as well the family’s) mental, physical and sexual health that was abused at the hands of their relatives after their mother’s death.
However, Winfrey claimed that she still didn’t feel the kind of “rage and anger and fear” that many other victims suffering from abuse do, as she has fallen back on what she’s most famous for.
“I am pretty damn healed from all my past stuff.”
Remembering the time she met a student who’d been abused by her aunt, back from a school she founded in South Africa, she said, “I called her and said, ‘Tell me about your aunt.'”