Archetypes in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

When I decided to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I had no idea what I was getting into. I chose this book because of the description on Amazon. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about a poor, black woman that had some medical issues. When she went to the doctor, they sampled her cells- cells from her cervix-

Cervical cancer cells, SEM
Cervical Cancer Cells

and she was told she had cervical cancer. She wasn’t told, however, that her cells would be used to to help develop the polio vaccine, cloning, and gene mapping while she was getting radiation treatment for cancer. Millions of dollars were made from these cells, and no one told her, or her family after she died, that these cells played an important role in medical advancement and that people made a lot of money from her cells, called HeLa.


There are a few archetypes that can be analyzed so far in my reading. Johns Hopkins Hospital at first seems like it might be the hero of the story, but what happens inside of the hospital is far from heroic for Henrietta Lacks. Johns Hopkins Hospital is named after Johns Hopkins. He was born on a tobacco plantation in the late 1800s. His father freed his slaves more than 60 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (National Archives and Records Administration). Johns didn’t get married and made millions of dollars working as a banker and in a grocery store, and just before he died in 1873 he donated $7 million dollars to start a medical school and charity

The Johns Hopkins Hospital
Johns Hopkins Hospital today

hospital (Skloot 166). This hospital turned Henrietta’s family sour though after they found out the hospital was using Henrietta’s cells without anyone’s permission while her family was hungry and couldn’t afford health insurance. “Hopkins say they gave them cells away, but they made millions! It’s not fair! She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” There were even rumours of “night doctors” that would kidnap black people at night and use them for medical research. “Snatchin people! Experimenting on them!” (Skloot 165).

I thought the hero might be Henrietta herself, but my interpretation of the hero is the author Rebecca Skloot. When she was 16, she was sitting in Biology class when her teacher told the class about the HeLa cells that came from the black woman, Henrietta Lacks. Her teacher told her to do some research for extra credit and her research lead to finding out what happened to the HeLa cells.

The colour red symbolizes passion and anger. Henrietta liked to have her toenails painted red.

Red toenails

When she died, the lab assistant Mary, saw Henrietta’s painted toenails when she was in the morgue. Mary said “When I saw those toenails I nearly fainted. I though, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they come from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.” (Skloot 90-91) The red toenails could be interpreted as Henrietta being passionate about her life even up until she died, or interpreted as Mary being angry at not realizing that the HeLa cells came from a real person, Henrietta.


Lastly, the book is written in the dialect of Henrietta’s community. “Ain’t nothin serious wrong. Doctor’s gonna fix me right up.” (Skloot 31) And “ A knot. It hurt somethin awful-when that man want to get with me, Sweet Jesus aren’t them but some pains.” (Skloot 14).   I interpret this as the author trying to show that Henrietta and her family came from a poor background with only a little education- the dialect of her community in 1951. All of the white characters speak without dialect and with proper grammar.

I think these are some of the most important archetypes in first half of of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.


Works Cited

National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 11 July 2017.
“Rebecca Skloot Journalist, Teacher, Author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Rebecca Skloot Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks FAQ1 How Did Skloot Learn about HeLa Cells Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway, 2017. Print.



2 thoughts on “Archetypes in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

  1. Hey Case! This sounds like such a sad story!! Just wondering, is the author a character in the novel, or simply the author? If she is just the author, how did you decide that she was the hero of the story? I can’t help but notice that HeLa seems to come from the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name. Do you think this is a coincidence? Great use of quotations to back up your claims.. nice work!


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