Teaching My Students About Henrietta Lacks
Conversations on the intersection of race, medicine, and ethics are important for our students to have. As educators, we can help start them.
When I used to teach Intro Biology, I would include the story of Henrietta Lacks. Every year that I would teach about her, my students would watch the movie adaptation of her story. One year I even had them read the best-selling book about her, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I always found myself drawn in and deeply moved by her story no matter how many times I reheard it. The story often left an impression on my students as well.. They were often shocked that something so clearly unethical and unjust happened in real life. Most of the time my students had never heard of her, but after learning her story, I was hopeful that they would never forget her. I know I never could.
How could I forget the true story of an African American woman whose cells were taken from her without her knowledge or consent, propagated by scientists for decades (because her cancer cells were immortal), and used in research and sold to labs across the world for profit? How could I forget the story of yet another life lost too soon to cancer? How could I forget a woman whose cells outlived her and saved countless lives? How could I forget the deeply troubling circumstances that brought about her immortality and through which we have come to know about her?
I incorporated Henrietta into my curriculum because I wanted to spark important discussions in my classroom on the intersection of race, medicine, and ethics and introduce my students to the woman behind the cells we all continue to benefit from today. Just like Gregor Mendel is considered the Father of Genetics, Henrietta is called the Mother of Modern Medicine. Her story deserves to be told alongside the typical founding figures students learn about in biology classrooms. Importantly, when we acknowledge her memory in this way, it challenges us to never forget the unethical and unjust circumstances that are not only a part of her story, but our shared history and to actively work towards creating a future where nothing like this ever happens again.
I incorporated Henrietta into my curriculum because I wanted to spark important discussions in my classroom on the intersection of race, medicine, and ethics…As a scientist and Christian, I believe that it is important not to shy away from these types of conversations.
While we have things like informed consent and HIPAA, which came about in large part due to Henrietta’s case, we must not forget the healthcare disparities and inequities that still exist today, especially for people of color. This is evidenced by higher Black maternal mortality rates, higher HIV/AIDS infection rates in Black and Latino communities, and how COVID disproportionately affected people of color in the US. We still have very real problems to solve.
As a scientist and Christian, I believe that it is important not to shy away from these types of conversations. How do we stand up for others if we don’t know their stories? If we don’t know the history that has shaped perceptions, attitudes, and systems? If we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others? How can we advocate for others when we don’t know or understand what they’ve been through or access issues they still face regularly that make it more difficult for them to receive basic care? Thankfully there are churches who are modeling what it looks like to step up and address health stigmas and disparities for their own congregations and communities at large.
For my fellow educators, it can be easy to feel disempowered by our seemingly limited role in the classroom to make any sort of impactful societal change to address issues like these, but by sharing and having conversations about stories like those of Henrietta, we are honoring legacies and reclaiming stories in ways that can empower our students to mobilize and advocate for others outside the classroom. Research supports the teaching of stories like those of Henrietta Lacks in the classroom as being more effective in helping students make important connections between science and society, and that students themselves found reading Henrietta’s story in particular to be more useful and engaging than reading corresponding chapters in their biology textbook. I certainly have observed this to be true in my own classroom.
…it can be easy to feel disempowered by our seemingly limited role in the classroom to make any sort of impactful societal change to address issues like these, but by sharing and having conversations about stories like those of Henrietta, we are honoring legacies and reclaiming stories in ways that can empower our students to mobilize and advocate for others outside the classroom.
One year I assigned discussion questions about Henrietta and her cells: “Do you think they carry some essence of Henrietta? How do you think you would perceive cells from someone close to you that grow in culture in a laboratory?” I cannot take the credit for writing these questions, but when I came across them, I liked how they helped contextualize the cells my students were learning about and invited my students to connect with Henrietta’s story in a deeply personal way by putting themselves in the shoes of her family. Cells were no longer just an abstract concept or drawing in a textbook, they were parts of real living people like Henrietta with families and stories of their own.
Many of my students connected to Henrietta’s story in ways they didn’t connect with other material they were learning about in class. When I took a close look at some of my student’s discussion responses, it was clear that they were engaging with more than just the biology they were learning in class—they were connecting with someone else’s story, bringing their own experiences and convictions into the conversation. I share some of their anonymous verbatim responses below to give you a glimpse into my students’ responses:
“I think that the cells that are still alive today do carry some essence of Henrietta simply because the DNA they originated from was Henrietta’s. Yes, they had to have changed and evolutionized much throughout the years, but they still are HER cells.”
“I have qualities unique to my great grandmother who died in the 1960’s so I don’t think that sort of DNA just disappears, even after several decades. I’m completely unsure how this works on a scientific level, but I would imagine DNA and her “essence” can’t just disappear.”
“I think Henrietta’s cancer cells do carry some essence of her. Whether they were grown in a culture or not, they didn’t appear out of nowhere, they somehow came from her. Even if they are infected and cancerous and maybe not the purest or best representation of her as a person, they are still a part of her and should be treated with respect.”
“I think from a sentimental standpoint cells certainly have an essence of our loved ones, much like an old sweater of theirs or a thread of hair left on the floor. So it would be like if doctors had taken that old sweater or hair and were using it without the loved one’s or the family’s consent.”
“I am a firm believer that when a person dies, their soul is the essence of who they are as a human being. This is a woman with a story and a life of her own.”
“I do not think that Henrietta’s cancer cells still being alive would still carry some essence of her in a spiritual or religious manner at all. I think they carry the essence of the cancer that destroyed her. If someone close to me died and their cells were growing in culture in a laboratory I don’t think I would feel too much about it except for the fact that I hope this research can be used to help the suffering of others. I would also probably feel maybe some slight resentment to those cancer cells, if I can really feel resentful towards cells.”
The intersection of science and society
I asked my students other questions as well about Henrietta’s story, as there are many teaching resources available online to facilitate discussions in the classroom. But this might have been the only question that I myself didn’t quite know how to answer.
Do our cells carry some essence of us? How would I perceive cells from someone close to me that grow in culture in a laboratory? I could draw on my own background in biology considering somehow that cells construct our bodies and store the DNA that makes us uniquely us, and yet they in and of themselves are not us, at least not fully. Perhaps, they are only a part of us, and contain in a limited sense some of our essence. I could draw on my own experience as someone whose family has been impacted by cancer, even losing a loved one and friends to it, but this was nothing even close to what happened to Henrietta and her family.
When it comes to reflecting on whether Henrietta’s cells in particular contained some of her essence, I could consider the fact that her cells used today in labs across the world are not the original cells removed from her. They are descendants of her original cancer cells that underwent rounds and rounds of division, so much so that the total number of her cells that have been grown in labs over the years exceeds the number of cells in the human body, in her body. Her cells have also incurred mutations over the years such that they are not completely genetically identical to the original ones. But to Henrietta’s family, her cells were everything—the closest thing they had to a woman they knew as mom, wife, or friend—and her memory lives on through her cells, doing good for the world.
Having conversations that invite us to sit in tension and discomfort, that challenge us to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and make connections between the material and broader society have the potential to make a stronger and more lasting impact on our students than just memorizing facts or listening to a lecture.
But as I attempted to definitively answer these questions myself, I realized that wasn’t the point of the exercise. Regardless of what cells are or aren’t, or how different Henrietta’s cells today are from the original ones, their origin can be traced back to a real, living, breathing person, and we should never forget that. Other cell lines used in research have human origins as well, but none to my knowledge were taken under the troubling circumstances surrounding Henrietta’s cells.
As an educator, I have to remind myself that learning isn’t always about finding answers, so much as an exercise and practice in asking the right questions and starting the right conversations. Especially on important matters of race, medicine, and ethics. Having conversations that invite us to sit in tension and discomfort, that challenge us to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and make connections between the material and broader society have the potential to make a stronger and more lasting impact on our students than just memorizing facts or listening to a lecture.
Importantly, teaching students stories like those of Henrietta cannot be done in isolation. In the research study I referenced earlier, students didn’t just read one or two stories in their classrooms; whole intro biology curriculums were reorganized to intentionally address three topical areas of emphasis: 1) “The Ugly Truth: Unethical Experimentation and Human Rights Evolution,” 2) “Representation in STEM,” and 3) “Intersection of Science and Identity.” Conversations on evolution, religion, and the limitations of science were even included in this revised curriculum as it fell under the domain of science and identity.
When curriculums are structured in this way, students leave our classrooms “with a deeper understanding of how science impacts the world around them, as well as their role in this interaction.” As a science educator, this is one of the best learning outcomes we can hope for our students.
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