Object 2: Photograph of Henrietta Lacks

May 27, 2021


Henrietta Lacks was a young African American woman that passed away in the early 50s, following her battle with a grave case of cervical cancer. Months prior to her death, samples of her cancerous cells were taken by the hospital treating her. Without Lacks ’consent, some of her tissue was given to a researcher, who came to discover her cells ’unbelievable ability to undergo mitosis—cell division—and reproduce. These samples were then shared to such an extent that they became an essential actor in the acquisition of biological knowledge.

Decades after her death, scientists still failed to ask for her family’s consent when they published Lacks’s name, medical records or her cells ’genome to the media. Confidentiality and consent are principles that doctors must unerringly uphold, as is stated in the Good Medical Practice document, which outlines doctors’ ethical and legal decisions. Her situation is ethically very interesting, as her cells have contributed immensely to modern medicine in various fields including cancer, immunology and infectious disease. As such, the choices made by the doctors and scientists involved with Henrietta Lacks encourage thorough deliberation on the pursuit of knowledge beneficial to society, and whether it should be sought on ethical grounds.

The knowledge acquired through the use of her cells was invaluable to the advancement of scientific knowledge, but it was obtained by forsaking ethical standards. On this account, this object contributes to the exhibition, as it raises the question of how important ethical absolutes are in the grand scheme of things. Had the hospital asked for authorisation before sharing samples of her tissue, they could have risked refusal, hence rendering it impossible for her cells’ exceptional circumstances to be discovered. At the cost of abandoning ethical code, numerous lives were saved or significantly improved, which calls into question the role of ethics in the search for knowledge.

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