The book tells the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. The cells became an important research tool in medicine, paving the way for the development of vaccines, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more.
Dr. Charles and Mrs. Sandra Angell, Dr. Sievers’ parents, both spent their careers at Johns Hopkins Hospital and knew many of the doctors and scientists mentioned in the book. Dr. Angell, now retired, served as Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and as an internist and cardiologist at Park Medical Associates and later at Johns Hopkins Medicine International. Mrs. Angell is the former Johns Hopkins School of Nursing Associate Dean for Student Affairs.
The couple shared their thoughts about the book with Dr. Sievers’ students, admitting that it was difficult to see their workplace and colleagues written about in the work.
“The book was hard to read at times, especially if you knew another side,” Mrs. Angell said. “But it was an important book to be written. I just wouldn’t want people to think research is bad. Because of Henrietta’s cells, the cooperation around the world has moved medicine.”
Dr. Angell agreed. “It was painful for me to read, too,” he said. “The story of Henrietta Lacks is a tragic one. The redemption for us is to acknowledge these problems. Johns Hopkins, at every level, has acknowledged this and is trying to move to the next level.”
The book has led to ongoing discussions at Johns Hopkins about ways in which to honor Mrs. Lacks, and other positive changes in hospitals have been made because of the attention the book has garnered, Dr. Angell says.
“Every hospital now has an internal review board and consent forms,” he said. “Things are very different than they were at that time. They are going in a different direction.”
Dr. Sievers assigned the book in order to expose students to a form of literary memorialization that transcends traditional notions of the elegy.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks elegizes Henrietta Lacks within the context of the racial, historical, socioeconomic and bioethical debates of the past century,” she said.
Dr. Sievers hopes her students’ reading of the book, and visit with her parents, will help them foster connections between their work in English class and across other disciplines.