“Illegal, immoral, and deplorable” were the words used to describe a perverse experiment using HeLa cells. HeLa cells came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author Rebecca Skloot describes the life of Henrietta Lacks and the significance of her cells, known as HeLa cells, to science.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of cancer on October 4, 1951. Before her death, her cancer cells were harvested. Her cancer cells became famous because of their unique capacity to replicate outside of the body. HeLa cells have been used for many different purposes, including testing the polio vaccine.

However, researchers have also abused HeLa cells. Skloot writes about Dr. Chester Southam, a cancer researcher, who injected patients with HeLa cells beginning in 1954 to test theories on cancer. At first he injected people with cancer with HeLa cells. They developed cancerous nodules. Then he tested HeLa cells on healthy people. He placed an advertisement in a penitentiary’s newsletter: “physician seeks 25 volunteers for cancer research”.

Southam gave multiple cancer cell injections to each prisoner, and unlike the terminally ill patients, those men fought off cancer completely.

Southam then moved onto injecting the cells into gynaecologic surgery patients without telling them that the cells were cancerous. Eventually, he made an arrangement in 1963 with Emanuel Mandel, Director of Medicine at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital to use Mandel’s patients for research. Mandel’s staff were to inject patients with HeLa cells. However, three Jewish doctors refused to do so without obtaining the patients’ informed consent. After they refused to do so, Mandel had a resident inject the patients with the cancerous HeLa cells.

The plan was that Mandel would have doctors on his staff inject twenty-two JCDH [Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital] patients with cancer cells for Southam. But when he instructed his staff to give the injections without telling patients they contained cancer cells, three young Jewish doctors refused, saying they wouldn’t conduct research on patients without their consent. All three knew about the research Nazis had done on Jewish prisoners. They also knew about the famous Nuremberg trials.

All three doctors resigned and sent a resignation letter to Mandel and a reporter. “When Mandel got the letter, he called a meeting with one of the doctors, and accused them of being overly sensitive because of their Jewish ancestry.”

The doctors described Southam’s research in their affidavits using words like “illegal, immoral, and deplorable”. Additionally, a fourth doctor came forward and explained in an affidavit that the patients could not consent anyways even if informed. “One had advanced Parkinson’s disease and couldn’t talk, others spoke only Yiddish, one had multiple sclerosis and “depressive psychosis”.

The Medical Grievance Committee found Southam and Mandel guilty of fraud, deceit, and unprofessional conduct in the practice of medicine. The Committee concluded that evidence was put forward showing an attitude “on the part of some physicians that they can go ahead and do anything… and that the patient’s consent is an empty formality.”

Luckily, informed consent has become integral to the medical system.