Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins, Slaves at Georgetown, and Compensating Specific Historical Wrongs


On Saturday, HBO aired its original movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, an adaptation of the book of the same name. Even if you’ve never read the book (as I haven’t, but am going to) you’ve more than likely heard somebody you know talking about this book, written by Rebecca Skloot, that talks about the woman whose cells, dubbed HeLa, would forever change the medical landscape. Her cells have helped in the fight to cure and treat everything from polio to in vitro fertilization. Henrietta Lacks’ cells are an industry unto themselves.


Johns Hopkins University, the famous research institution in Baltimore, MD, is where her cancerous cells were removed, studied, and discovered to have the reproductive properties necessary to do the type of research doctors had been attempting to achieve for some time. Obviously, I’m underselling the story, but luckily there’s a book and now a movie that speak to this point in more scientific and technical details. What is non-technical is that the cells were harvested and then used without her consent (apparently some of her cancerous cells were taken during the autopsy) and then used far and wide by companies that profited because of them. Johns Hopkins claims that it never profited from the use of her cells and that there were no regulations for consent then, though there are now, which sounds an awful lot like, we used to be racist but racism is gone now, we fixed it.

Along with the lack of consent though, there was a lot of money made because of her cells. In fact, the implication is made that the ONLY folks who haven’t profited off of the cells of Henrietta Lacks are her family. Even Rebecca Skloot managed to profit seeing as she wrote a book that remained on the best-selling list for six years. In the movie, the family is clearly wary of outsiders coming in trying to find information from them, especially when again, no money ever seems to be on the table though money is is being made everywhere.

Hopkins clearly made an ethical violation, regardless of whether the times dictated their practices or whether they never profited from the sale of HeLa cells.  They did provide the cells to other outlets which DID profit without the family’s consent or knowledge. A wrong was clearly done, no matter how you slice it. And in that wrong, a WHOLE lot of people got very, very rich doing so.

This begs the question: how exactly do you compensate for such a significant wrong that was done to a family, one in which money was being made hand over fist? And who cuts that check?

This reminds me of another recent case: Georgetown University. Georgetown profited from slavery, recently acknowledging the sale of 272 slaves to pay off debts and basically keep the doors open. Once you acknowledge something so heinous, you have to do something about it. Georgetown’s attempt to atone? Well, they have offered preferred admission to the descendants of the slaves that were sold, a group for which many people have been found, some even coming up for a ceremony here in DC. To me, Georgetown has fallen TREMENDOUSLY short in their attempt to atone.

Georgetown is roughly $70k a year to attend. Preferred admission is great; I’m sure the legacy students of alumni appreciate that too. But who cares if you get in if you can’t actually attend? Especially for financial reasons…reasons that Georgetown sold off those slaves they're apologizing for now? It seems to me that in the case of Georgetown, there is a very simple solution: provide college free to any of those descendants who are able to apply and be accepted into Georgetown, whether it’s undergrad, graduate, post-bac, post-doc, whatever. Nobody who can trace themselves to that family should have to worry about being able to afford college again. They should only have to worry about being able to get in. That’s it.


Georgetown clearly knows this; WHY they’ve stopped short of doing this is in question. How is it that this school with an endowment of roughly $1.5 billion, can’t clear that financial burden? We all know they’ve had that talk, but apologizing without restitution is empty. Georgetown has fallen asleep at the wheel. While they're asleep, at least they KNOW the obvious solution.

In the case of Henrietta Lacks and her family, should Hopkins be on the hook for a payout? Shoot, providing free health care for any member of that family forever should be on the table, AS should a free education for anybody in that family who is, again, able to gain admission, whether that be undergrad or grad school, law, medical, etc. Whatever. I realize these institutions struggle with their trustees and donors in terms of what they think is an appropriate reaction to these injustices - and let's be real, whitefolks gon' whitefolk, especially when it comes to past injustices towards Black people - but its hard to pretend like an injustice wasn’t done when the proof is in all of the pudding everywhere. And in the case of Henrietta Lacks and Georgetown, the specifics are very clear. If you can ACTUALLY reach out and touch those affected negatively, I believe there is a moral obligation to address those things.


I’m no lawyer and I don’t play one on television, so I’m sure the legal wrangling on these matters must be a headache and a half, but at least in these two cases, there’s a very clear way to do SOMETHING. And preferred admission is a cute start at Georgetown; a nice letter of admission is awesome on your way to MyNeighborhood University that can be afforded, I guess. I don’t know the proper way to compensate the family of Henrietta Lacks, especially if Hopkins claims of not profiting off the cells are true, but something was done wrong and that is indisputable.

They’ve got to do something. Riley Freeman famous told Santa that he was "going to pay what you owe!" These institutions owe somebody. The what is the question.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



naughty song time!