Once upon a time, there was an African-American woman in Baltimore named Henrietta Lacks who got treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1950. She died, and the cell sample taken during her treatment went on to contribute to the polio vaccine, cancer and AIDS research, and just about every other sort of biomedical research involving cell lines since the 1950s. The immortal cell line developed from that cell sample has saved countless lives and continues to be used to develop treatments and cures for all sorts of human ailments. Henrietta’s children and grandchildren knew nothing of this, received no compensation for it, and have lived and continue to live with a variety of health problems; many of them unable to access treatment for a lack of health insurance.
The most interesting book I read in 2010 was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Skloot worked with Henrietta’s family to tell her true story: the story of her life, and the story of her death, and the story of her immortality, and the story of her family to date. A 31-year-old woman unknowingly provided the material to prevent, cure, and treat diseases, and will live for generations in the malignant cells that took her short life. Yet until very recently with the publication of Skloot’s book, only a few people anywhere knew anything about the origin of the HeLa cells or the name or the story of the woman whose priceless contribution to science and humanity will continue for the foreseeable future.
* * * * * *
Once upon a time, there was a woman who was a nanny for a series of well-to-do families in Chicago for 40 years. She also was a brilliant photographer, but her work was never discovered or publicized until after her death, when a man who had bought her personal effects at an auction began to develop some of her 100,000 negatives and post them in a blog while attempting to learn more about her. The woman was very private in life and had absolutely no idea that someday the world would become fascinated with the art she left behind.
* * * * * *
Once upon a time, there was a young man in Arizona, who was mentally ill and had problems with the government of his country. He bought a gun and brought it to a public event in a public place, where his local governmental representative planned to meet with constituents, and he shot her in the head. He shot 19 other people and killed six of them, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl who had been born on September 11, 2001. By committing this terrible crime, people all over the world knew his name and what he had done only hours after it happened, and millions of people in the United States and other countries discussed, in depth, his life and his crime and what it meant for the future of political discourse in this country. With that one decision, in those few moments, the young man propelled himself, his name, and his deed into the annals of history. Everybody who pays any attention whatsoever to current events knows the name Jared Loughner.
* * * * * * *
For most people, immortality is just an unobtainable concept. For most people, the closest they might ever get to being remembered forever is to have children and to tell those children their own stories, that they might be passed down through generations. Some people are able to do a little more to enter into the collective consciousness, through pioneering scientific breakthroughs or writing beloved books, producing art or serving the public. Most people are content with the small amount of recognition the average person gets from his or her family or community, and most people will never do anything to merit nationwide or worldwide attention, or if they do, they don’t deliberately seek it. It’s really unfortunate, I think, that there are people who will commit horrible atrocities and garner that attention, when there are people whose contributions to their communities or their societies that go largely unrecognized until long after their deaths.