Johns Hopkins Tries to Make Peace with Henrietta Lacks

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Last year’s surprise non-fiction bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, put Johns Hopkins in a tricky position. In Rebecca Skloot’s account of the woman whose continually reproducing cervical cancer cells have been the foundation of medical breakthroughs for decades since her death in the 1950s, the hospital comes off as cold — callous, even. “Neither Henrietta Lacks nor her family were taken seriously when a sample of her cervical cancer cells was taken and immortalized – without their knowledge – as the HeLa cell line,” writes one blogger. “Rebecca Skloot’s documentation of the insensitivity that was shown toward the Lacks family at Johns Hopkins, unwittingly or not, makes you plain angry.”

As the university tries to build a better reputation with the city, this is exactly not the image they want to be projecting. To that end, the school has endowed a Henrietta Lacks Memorial Lecture, intended to honor Lacks and to “describe the reach and complexity, both biomedically and ethically, of the story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells as well as to provide some insight into the past, present, and future of the conduct of clinical research.”

In another public gesture, the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute just instituted the Henrietta Lacks Memorial Award, “created to recognize and support Baltimore community organizations that are collaborating with The Johns Hopkins University to improve the health and well-being of Baltimore City and its residents.” This year’s $15,000 grant went to Newborn Holistic Ministries, which runs a program for homeless women, arts classes for kids, as well as other services to meet residents’ “material, social, and spiritual needs.”

It’s certainly a positive effort — but is it enough to repair decades of antagonism between the university and the East Baltimore communities it uneasily coexists with?



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