Freshmen, Fellows join in discussion
of landmark 1951 cell sampling © Oct. 7, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Marcia Banwell watches another participant make her point in the Great Books series discussion of <em>The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks</em> on Sept. 28, 2011. A panel of Norwich students (background) led the gathering.

photo by Adam HattMarcia Banwell watches another participant make her point in the Great Books series discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Sept. 28, 2011. A panel of Norwich students (background) led the gathering.

Major advances in science and technology often bring difficult ethical questions to the surface.

Norwich University freshmen have waded into that complex intersection of science and morality with the help of a popular book. In late September, a handful of professors and academic advisors joined math and science students for a wide-ranging discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the acclaimed, 2010 science-inflected biography by Rebecca Skloot. Six members of a student panel, who bravely put aside freshman reticence and shyness, led the talk.

“I don't know too many people in their first month at the University who would like to lead a discussion,” said a smiling Prof. Richard Milius shortly before the event.

There’s a million issues
in that book.

Marc Nascarella
1999 graduate and Fellow

In late August, all freshmen were mailed a copy of Immortal Life, which tells the remarkable tale of a young black woman whose cervical cancer tissue sample, taken without her knowledge in 1951 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, became the unlikely basis for the oldest and most commonly used human cell line.

Beyond informing readers about Lacks, whose prolific cells became known as “HeLa” [for the first letters of her first and last name], Skloot’s book chronicles a cautionary tale of the blurred moral lines that can emerge when science, research, life-saving advances, breakthrough technology and big corporations, not to mention race and poverty, become intertwined.

“There’s a million issues in that book,” said Marc Nascarella, a doctor, toxicologist and 1999 Norwich graduate, in explaining why it was chosen for the second year of the University’s Great Books series. Faculty and members of Norwich’s Board of Fellows, an academic advisory group that includes Nascarella, choose a book each year they believe will benefit freshmen in all academic disciplines. The board sponsors the program.

Chemistry lecturer Milius and sports medicine Prof. Todd Neuharth took special advantage of the book in a new interdisciplinary freshman seminar aimed at math and science students. From this group of 40 came the student panel.

Bioethics is a field that vexes professional scientists and scholars, so students understandably had a lot of questions and different viewpoints. The lack of informed consent by Lacks, a poor, uneducated woman, to the removal of her cells and their subsequent use for private benefit, spurred a variety of opinions.

Freshman Joseph Averett, a vocal panel member and chemistry major from Boston, pointed out that informed consent was very different in the 1950s, and no one anticipated the remarkable progress that followed from the HeLa cells, which contributed to many medical and landmark scientific advances such as cloning, gene mapping and in-vitro fertilization.

“One of the important things to understand is the context in which these events took place,” he said, suggesting the doctors who treated Lacks may not have thought they were violating medical ethics.

Ruben Alvarez, a math major from California, noted that Johns Hopkins was the only hospital in the Washington, D.C., area where black people could get cancer treatment, and it was provided free.

That prompted English Prof. Patricia Ferreira to remind students that removal of cells without permission wasn't done to everyone. “They did it to specific populations—African Americans, prisoners—we can’t deny that historical reality,” she said.

Chris Cole, a freshman from Rhode Island who wasn’t on the panel, wondered where to draw the line: Do cells removed and grown outside the body still belong to the person they came from? If doctors remove someone’s arm, he asked, who does the limb belong to?

Participants generally agreed the family should receive compensation, but bogged down on whether it should take the form of money or health care, and who would decide. Panel member Kelley Fitzmaurice of New Hampshire pointed out more thorny questions: Where do you draw the line on who is compensated? Her children? Grandchildren? Relatives?

Averett noted that companies now using Lacks’ cells for research don’t know of her existence. “People had no idea who she was,” he said, wondering whether that negated moral responsibility.

Nascarella, who has worked with the HeLa cell line himself in his job, said Lacks got proper care from the hospital. Scientists all over the world, including a Swiss colleague of his, use the cells, and they play a huge role in important diagnostic tests, he said.

Milius said the book by Skloot, who will be visiting Norwich March 29, 2012 as part of the school’s Todd Lecture Series, was a perfect launch vehicle for the seminar. The goal of the program wasn’t to determine “right” or “wrong,” but to encourage freshmen to learn critical-thinking skills and to consider ethics in a complex world.

“It just seemed to us it was a really good way to get our students thinking about topics that are very relevant today,” he said.

The Great Books series began in 2010, when students were mailed Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.