Biotechnology and Culture: Bodies, Anxieties, Ethics

By Paul E. Brodwin | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Immortality, In Vitro
A History of the HeLa Cell Line

HANNAH LANDECKER

A tissue is evidently an enduring thing. Its functional and struc-
tural conditions become modified from moment to moment.
Time is really the fourth dimension of living organisms. It enters
as a part into the constitution of a tissue. Cell colonies, or organs,
are events which progressively unfold themselves. They must be
studied like history.

—Alexis Carrel, “The New Cytology”

The double is neither living nor dead: designed to supplement
the living, to perfect it, to make it immortal like the Creator, it is
always “the harbinger of death.” It disguises, by its perfection, the
presence of death. By creating what he hopes are immortal dou-
bles, man tries to conceal the fact that death is always already
present in life. The feeling of uncanniness that arises from the
double stems from the fact that it cannot but evoke what man
tries in vain to forget.

—Sarah Kofman, Freud and Fiction

In 1951, a piece of cancerous cervical tissue was cut from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Lacks died eight months later of cancer. Live cells from the biopsy were grown in test tubes, supplied with nutrient medium, and kept at body temperature in an incubator. Named HeLa, from the first two letters of Lacks’s first and last names, and called an immortal cell line, descendants of these original cells continue to grow and divide in laboratories around the world. Proliferating with these glass-bound populations of cells are narratives of their life and origin.

The cells live and the woman does not. They somehow stand for her and she for them; otherwise, this pair of circumstances would not present itself as a paradox, much less one that has generated such fascinated attention from 1951 to today. That one party in this relation should be alive and the other dead creates a dramatic tension which continues to generate scientific papers, newspaper and magazine articles, and television documentaries. The resolution of the paradox in these narratives is always the

-53-

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