Landecker’s “Immortality, In Vitro: A History of the HeLa Cell Line” (response)

I had known of HeLa cells long before I learned of the story of Henrietta Lacks, but the story I heard was only the most recent narrative of economic exploitation, so it was very interesting to read Landecker’s history of all the different narratives that have been circling Henrietta and the cell line derived from her cancer.  It was also interesting to get a peek into the history of tissue culture – we certainly weren’t wearing black robes and working with steaming cauldrons in my lab!

Landecker focuses on several important themes in her history, but the two I found most interesting were immortality and race.  The HeLa cell line was labeled immortal because it could be (and has been) kept in laboratory conditions that allow it to multiply and divide seemingly indefinitely – certainly much longer than any non-cancerous cell lines, although I was under the impression that hES cell lines could also be propagated indefinitely.  Landecker argues that “the narrative of immortality – beneficent, malignant, or monetary – masks the death at its origin.” (69)  In other words, she argues that Henrietta Lack’s misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment (that might have hastened her death) were treated as merely a footnote and never given much thought, or generated any outrage, due to the power of the personification of the HeLa cell line as immortal: it didn’t really matter that the body of Henrietta Lacks was dead because in some sense she lived on in this cell line.  I agree that the narrative is powerful, but I don’t think it fully masks Henrietta Lack’s death or is the only reason why no one objected to her (mis)treatment.  This is where Landecker’s second theme of race comes in.

The fact that Henrietta Lack presented as black (I’m using this terminology due to Landecker’s apt discussion of the scientific ambiguity of race) probably played a major role in her medical care, even if her race wasn’t publicly reported until well after her death.  Landecker history of the narrative reveals a very interesting shift occurred once the race reporting occurred in the context of contamination concerns.  At first, when the HeLa line was being used to save the world through vaccine development, the “donor” was called a heroine and was presumed to be white.  Once it was discovered that cross-contamination had occurred between several different cell lines, a researcher decided to use the inaccurate, but easy to understand science of race essentialism instead of the accurate, but complex science of population genetics to recast Henrietta Lacks as a black invader polluting white cell lines.  The miscegenation metaphor had become the new narrative.

Landecker doesn’t detail the transition from this narrative to the more recent narrative of economic exploitation.  Are we to assume this is just a natural development of the civil rights movement breaking down the old narrative and the growth of capitalism building up a new one?  And, again, do all three narratives – from HeLa as savior to HeLa as polluter to HeLa as property – truly mask the death of Henrietta Lack?  A big part of the most recent narrative is that the HeLa line has generated profit that should be used to compensate Henrietta Lack’s heirs, and I don’t see how that masks her death.  Thinking back to when I first heard of HeLa cells, it was the name “HeLa” that blinded me from thinking that these cells must have originated from someone.  Once I learned that “HeLa” was named after Henrietta Lacks, then I always thought of the (dead) person first, cell line second.  The three narratives, even if they don’t use her name, refer to a person and not just a cell line: the first narrative describes a heroic young housewife, the second describes a threatening Negro woman, and the third describes an exploited mother with children wanting compensation.  How do these three narratives hide the fact that Henrietta Lacks is dead, even if her cell line isn’t?  (Another interesting direction to take the discussion, where Landecker doesn’t really go she’s interested in the question of narrative, is whose cell line is it anyway.  Is it really her cell line if it was a scientist who arranged the laboratory conditions for its propagation?  Or, is it her cell line as opposed her cancer’s cell line?  Was the cancer her cancer?  This all leads to the interesting question of property and patentability, which connects to several other readings.)


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