Henrietta Lacks in Text and Context

The phenomenal success of the critically acclaimed book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has inspired an international conversation about health inequality and bioethics. This talk will retrace the story of Lacks’ life and death with an eye to how the milieu of the late 20th century United States rendered this poor, black woman’s HeLa cells “available” for extraction, circulation, and commodification. Lacks’ experience was, in some ways, as extraordinary as her “immortal” soma. Yet moving from the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which began two decades prior to Lacks’ death, to the emergence of coercive sterilization politics and the Black Panther Party’s health activism two decades hence, we see that her treatment was, in may other ways, typical of Jim Crow healthcare and of the gendered trajectory of medical discrimination in the U.S. Understanding the social and historical contexts that conditioned Lacks’ fateful end, we come to appreciate the enduring relevance of her life’s example for the rights and wellbeing of us all.

Alondra Nelson

Department of Sociology, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Columbia University


Alondra Nelson teaches sociology and gender studies at Columbia University. She was previously at Yale University, where she received the Poorvu Family Award for teaching excellence. An interdisciplinary social scientist, Alondra writes about the intersections of science, technology, medicine and inequality, such as in her most recent book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. Alondra’s writings appear in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, and others. Her publications also include essays and articles on race and digital culture;“scientism” in black power politics; the use of racial categories in medicine; and the social implications of direct-to-consumer genetic testing and genetic genealogy.