Friday, December 9, 2011

Elsie Lacks

Just beginning the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you knew you were getting into a sad story and although I found the whole book interesting in that it was told from several different perspecitives, I couldn't help but to become even more interested in finding out about Elsie Lacks. While looking into what little information there was available on Henrietta's eldest daughter, I can only imagine what sort of tragic story it coould become on paper, seeing as how the pneumoencephalogrphy tests were quite the norm in Crownsville State Hospital as described in (pg. 275-276).


  1. I totally agree, I think that there was too little of information put in the book about Elsie. The only think you really get to know about Elsie is that she was placed in a "hospital for the negro insane" because of her illness and that she died at the age of fifteen. I wanted to know more about her.

  2. In the description of medical care at Crownesville, Ms Skloot might have taken some liberties with the pneumoencephalography description that makes the procedure sound more invasive and horrific than it might have been at that time. She actually describes ventriculography, which was first done by the great Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon and innovator Walter Dandy in 1918. Within a year he changed the technique to a much less traumatic procedure of introducing air by lumbar puncture and not a surgical intrusion into the brain.Believe me, It was still no walk in the park for patients, but it was the x-ray standard for imaging the brain until computed tomography (CT scanning) was perfected in the mid-1970s. Since Dr Dandy headed the Dept of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore throughout his career, the most esteemed training program of its kind, it is quite likely that neurosurgeons that might have serviced Crownesville would be well versed in pneumography by lumbar puncture in the 1940s and '50s. I can find no evidence of wide spread use of ventriculography except with evidence of brain tumors that had to be localized by x-ray when lumbar puncture would be more dangerous.

    This is not to disparage Ms Skloot's very fine documentary, but Elsie must have had a neurological syndrome of some sort that vexed her doctors enough for them to pursue some invasive diagnostic procedures, which, in itself, seems surprising considering how deplorable the conditions were at that forsaken institution. A pneumoencephalogram is still a complex radiologic procedure and I wonder what prompted her "caregivers" to pursue a diagnosis in a place that appears to have cared so little for its inmates.

    1. It occurs to me that in all probability Elsie's "caregivers" were not trying to diagnose anything, but were instead experimenting on her and other patients. They could have been trying to refine the painful and dangerous technique of pneumoencepalography. It seems obvious that some form of non-consensual experimentation was going on.