The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh

Ratings: 6.80/10 from 105 users.

The Way of All FleshIn 1951, a woman died in Baltimore, America. She was called Henrietta Lacks. These are cells from her body. They were taken from her just before she died. They have been growing and multiplying ever since.

There are now billions of these cells in laboratories around the world. If massed together, they would weigh 400 times her original weight. These cells have transformed modern medicine, but they also became caught up in the politics of our age. They shape the policies of countries and of presidents. They even became involved in the cold war because scientists were convinced that in her cells lay the secret to how to conquer death.

"It was not like an ordinary cancer. This was different, this didn’t look like cancer. It was purple and it bled very easily on touching. I’ve never seen anything that looked like it and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that looked like it since, so it was a very special different kind of, well, it turned out to be a tumor." –Dr. Howard Jones, Gynecologist.

More great documentaries

45 Comments / User Reviews

  1. Amy

    Is there anywhere this video can be purchased. Teach high school biomedical science and we work with Hela Cells. This is a better educational version to show than the newer HBO movie

  2. IJDavidson

    I happened back upon this comment thread years after posting my comment and am reading the comments that followed mine. They mostly confirm my impression that the power of ignorance and superstition know no limit. This applies as well to people whose hearts are clearly in the right place. I've also become interested in the psychopathology of conspiracy theorists since I posted the comment. I didn't realize - although I should have - just how many of them there are, busily grazing on the boundless pastures of locoweed that flourish out there beyond the fringe.

  3. Aaron Andrew Smith, Sr.

    This reminds me of the Tuskegee incident between 1932 until the early 70s. What else have black men and women been subjected too? And people wonder why the crack babies of the 80s are so violent. I believe there are a select few of scientist and medical doctors who dont care about crossing ethical lines. I believe more about the "American black persons" makeup is known by the scientific community than they care to acknowledge, admitt and or SHARE. I wish we'd wake up and begin to work together and make the human race song as harmonious as HUMANLY possible.

  4. Lesly

    How old are Henrietta Lack's cells now, as of 2015?

  5. Ophelia

    after reading the book a few years ago, i am so pleased to know this is being made into a film. Henrietta deserves a monument and her descendants dearly deserve benefit from the enormous contribution to science and the health of millions of past and future human beings. What was done was common practice at the time, and the doctor(s) involved intended no malice nor profit, but there is no question that what happened both changed the ethics of medical research on humans and changed the face of the search for a cure for cancer. Henrietta was a unsung hero who lived and died in material poverty, and her descendants should want for nothing; they should receive their fair share of what has turned into both profitable business, and recognition for Henrietta's contribution to the advancement of medical science which never would have been possible without her.

    1. Penny

      I truly agree!

  6. officialnana

    This sounded so much like scifi I had to research it :/ Like "ever-growing infected cells of a dead woman contaminating world wide high security labs". Really sounds like an horror movie. But it's all real and the doc is super interesting too. And I do feel like they've been very completely unfair to the woman's family.

  7. patty_allen

    I'm reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot at the moment, and this docmentary is metioned in it, so I became curious and wanted to watch it. The family members had been unwilling to speak to journalists since the making of this film, as they thought there was too much science and not enough about their relative. I found it very interesting, especially being able to put faces to the names of scientists mentioned, but agree that the family history could have been mentioned in more detail, rather than just the perfunctory periodical 'aside's' that it contains. As it was made in the 90's, I think it would be good to do a modern 'follow-up' to rectify this....... or has this already been done? I can thoroughly recommend the book as it tells the story both from the family angle, and the scientific angle, with the scentific angle told in a way that ordinary mortals can understand.

  8. Terry Beaton

    Not that long ago, (in the 50's I believe) black men who were being diagnosed with syphilis in one hospital were not even told about it. They let the disease continue in them so they could study it's progress. It seems to me that these men of science often lack simple human morals when the 'patient' is of an 'inferior race'. Evil ****, without a doubt. God save us from our 'saviors'!

    1. estrayer

      You are referring to the famous Tuskegee syphilis experiment which began in 1932 and ran for forty years. The black men were studied for the effects of "untreated" syphilis. They were told they were being treated for "bad blood." The illness developed and many died as a direct result of this government sponsored experiment. Wiki has much on it and there are a few academic articles to be found googling. Also a film was made of it called "Miss Evers Boys," a few years ago. In 1997 President Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the government. es

  9. Leslie Shepherd

    Somethings cant be simplified many things cant be cured life is as it is and i'm grateful to have the chance to life a healthy life. Thank you to Lacks Family, what will this life be without you? a bunch of sick people lol

  10. sweetchuck

    What an emotional journey from there to now!!
    As the truth is now known, I wish the Lacks family could get ownership of Henrietta's cells thought I know they never will. On another side, I'm really overwhelmed how far science has advanced, being catapulted by the discovery and subsequent use of these cells.

    Of note, this is an older documentary. There are more than a few viruses that can cause molecular changes to cells that cause cancer. And yes, there are other causes still. I think it curious how the cancer field has come full circle from this point. If anyone is interested, look up "GVAX"...and learn how cancer cells are being genetically modified, irradiated, and then injected intradermally with the hope to vaccinate people against cancer. HeLa! I'm sorry she suffered so, but she made so many wonderful things possible. I'm so thankful and we are all grateful, I'm sure.

  11. taxfatcats

    That is like Ice 9 - hela isn't even cancer. They think hela contaminated their findings, wait until they find out doctarded Borat Ceausescu's heart research is all complete fabrication. Medieval blood letters. Go blame a refrigerator. What evil idiots.

  12. BrandyJo Fontenot LeBlanc Mill

    does anyone want to buy some of my cells?

  13. Lesli

    If you enjoyed Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks then you would enjoy Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington. I am about halfway through the book and am amazed at all that I've learned.

  14. Maria Wolke-Sonnenschein

    what I don´t get is that, so it is said, the human papillomavirus causes Cervical cancer, wasn´t that what henrietta lacks was dying of? so why is the idea of a certain virus causing cancer extinguished?

    1. Uriel Baez

      cancer can be started be a lot of things that thinking the it is only started by a virus would be wrong, my opinion that is

  15. louisMcComack

    My opinion is that the scientists shouldn't have gone around selling what's not theirs without consulting Henrietta's' kids and getting approval. But I agree with IJDavidson that she was just one of the many with that case. Henrietta just happened to have it discovered by some scientists when they were searching for a new disease/cell which can survive as long as that did.

  16. louisMcComack

    I believe that the scientists shouldn't have gone around selling Henrietta's cells without first asking for permission of the kids and giving them a part of the wealth But I agree with IJDavidson that there were most likely more then just Henrietta with the tumor but it was just that she was the one found that the scientists were looking for a new diesease.

    1. Indy Skies

      Certainly many women suffered from cervical cancer, but Henrietta Lacks's cells were unique in that they multiplied at a prodigious rate and continued to multiply constantly.

  17. You Do Not See Me

    This is an Old Story...... Glad to see it on film.

  18. Tone Mendoza

    All that work, blindly pursued for decades, by tech savvy professionals with highly specialized backgrounds and histories of research and testing still were wrong.
    "It's clear that while her descendants are tough, resilient, resourceful people in their own worlds, they are ignorant and superstitious about Henrietta Lacks's cells. Do they deserve some financial benefit from her cells? I don't know; do people deserve to be paid for donated blood or donated kidneys? What's more, her spirit IS NOT in those cells. They're just tissue. "

    See what I mean?

    Who can say her spirit is not still around? Not me!

    1. You Do Not See Me

      In the beginning of the research the DOCTOR knew what he was doing was Illegal so he kept it a secret till the statue of limitations expired. It was illegal and the know it. Hell yeah the deserve some financial benefits them the came to them 45 years later with once again with a lie and took their DNA ( Blood) and tested it as well. They used that women and her family as lab rats and failed to give proper recognition and reparations ( monetary) because of racism PURE AND SIMPLE. Do they deserve something HELL YEAH THEY DO. This woman's cells have been to the moon and back as well even freaking mars! and have been used to cure and treat just about everything that hurts you and ails you today. Don't be stupid. Her family is ignorant. . . no honey they where kept ignorant.

      Let them place guinea pig with your family members body without you knowing.....

  19. Linda (again)

    To IJDavidson: clearly you have not read the book. What makes Henrietta Lacks' cells so incredible is that HER cells were the only ones that grew and stayed alive long enough to study as well as be used to develop treatments/cures for conditions such as polio, HIV Aids, diabetes,etc. Her cells were incredibly unique.

    To IJ Davidson: clearly you did not read the book. Henrietta's cells were very unique in that they were the ONLY ones that remained viable long enough to be used in the extremely important research that went on to find treatments/cures for polio, diabetes, HIV aids, and numerous other cancers and conditions.
    As I said before the irony is that Henrietta, as a Black woman, was given very substandard care and treatment of her disease. I don't think that it helps to refer to people as ignorant ( you clearly think that you aren't). Henrietta suffered, her children have suffered. Have some compassion for that. I like Rachel's idea of some sort of significant recognition of her contribution. After having READ the book, I believe that would be a comfort to the family and would have made Ms. Lacks happy also.

    While Ms. Lacks was Black, I don't think this has to be looked at totally in racial terms, but in human terms. We should always try to do the right thing by our fellow man. Henrietta's contributions have helped people of all races, ethnicities, and personal circumstance.

    1. ICanSeeWashingtonFromMyHouse

      they were the only ones at that time - i.e., they were the first. There are now thousands of cell lines created from tumors that have been removed from humans and animals. The uniqueness of HeLa is that they were the very first and have now been studied so thoroughly that they are the benchmark for comparison in virtually any study of new cell lines (they are used for the positive and negative controls for determining comparisons of new cell lines to old).

      Those facts are completely separate from all the issues about the substandard care (it was) and ongoing ethical/legal issues about use of human tissues.

      Reading the book has nothing to do with - although I have read the book.

  20. Raquel

    Henrietta's cells, have made a major contribution to science. There needs to be a cancer center or research lab, named after her. I like the comment form Del Mar (above)about Mickey Mouse.

  21. A Bucket Of Salt


  22. Lynn

    Dosen't make you wonder what they are doing right now they are not sharing with us, not only in our country but everywhere else too?????? I too would like to purchase a copy of this documentary to share with others. If it becomes available please post!

  23. Olu

    I guess, this documentary in fact shows the evil of capitalism: Work the slaves, and make the master's rich. And when the slaves' children come to collect on their parents' labor, then use the "justice" of the law to shut them up!

    It is sad that her cells generated billions of dollars for capitalists, but her children are shut out of dividing the wealth. Typical America for you!

  24. IJDavidson

    Marion writes, "What’s scary about the book and this documentary, is the fact that Dr’s and scientists are mixing stuff up in labs, when they are supposed to be finding cures for diseases….but are they really?" Marion, how do you think medical researchers come up with cures for diseases, by playing with Tinker Toys? Typical distrust of medical science by uncritical people who don't make the effort to acquire enough knowledge for critical thinking. I am not condoning the medicolegal or ethical standards of 60 years ago; their shortcomings have been recognized and addressed. Doctors and medical researchers are not Frankensteins evilly working away in their labs for newer and better ways to enslave mankind. They are people who really care about their jobs, because they are generally not the ones who derive the greatest financial benefit from them. And before you get all up in arms about how Henrietta Lacks's cells were taken from her without her knowledge or consent, bear in mind: Those were not big hunks of her brain or other normal and vital tissue. Those were CANCER cells. Those were THE CELLS THAT KILLED HER! THAT'S WHY SHE WENT TO THE DOCTOR: to GET RID of those cells! It's clear that while her descendants are tough, resilient, resourceful people in their own worlds, they are ignorant and superstitious about Henrietta Lacks's cells. Do they deserve some financial benefit from her cells? I don't know; do people deserve to be paid for donated blood or donated kidneys? What's more, her spirit IS NOT in those cells. They're just tissue. You don't save your hair when it's cut, you don't save your clipped fingernails, you don't save the skin cells you wash off in the shower, you don't save your poop or pee, and you don't lay claim to cancer cells that happen to be cut out of you! Furthermore, Henrietta Lacks was almost certainly not unique. Considering that the human population at the time of her illness numbered about 2 billion, the chances that some other tumor in some other person somewhere had characteristics comparable to Lacks's cancer are high. Hers just happened to be the cells that fell into the hands of people who were looking for tissue with just those characteristics.

    1. zuzu_petals

      When the poster towhom you responded said "mixing stuff up in the labs" they were quite accurate about the fate of the cells of Ms. Lacks.

      I first read about her immortal cells in a very hard to find book called "A Conspiracy of Cells" by Michael Gold that tells the story of the scandal of the migration and contamination of the HeLa cells into virtually every lab and every petri dish all over the world, killing off all the cells all the scietists and technicians were working on...and when it was discovered and proved that all those experiments and all that research had been contaminated...the scietific community went into denial and damage control.

      I believe in science. Moreso, than, say, profit motives and human egos and political wheelings and dealings that tend to affect how science is funded and how quickly actual results are accepted.

  25. Dzimas

    Thanks very much for making this documentary available. I've been reading Skloot's book and tracking down other sources. This doc is a real boon.

  26. Barbara

    I would like to purchase a DVD copy of The Way of All Flesh to show to a book club that I moderate at Stony Brook University in conjunction with a presentation of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henriatta Lacks. Is the DVD available anywhere?

  27. Marion

    I am currently listening to the audio book: The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, about this unknown woman, who’s cancer cells are still living. Dr’s and scientists have made huge strides in medicine, because of this. It’s very scary to see how this woman and family were bamboozled and did not profit anything. Ironically enough, the woman lived in Baltimore and still has relatives in the area…..What’s scary about the book and this documentary, is the fact that Dr’s and scientists are mixing stuff up in labs, when they are supposed to be finding cures for diseases….but are they really?

    1. ICanSeeWashingtonFromMyHouse

      Of course they are. This is a ridiculous statement. Finish the last chapter and hopefully you will understand that no one was intentionally bamboozled. It is terribly unfortunate that no one took the time to explain to the family what was going on, or what had happened in the past. It was clear from the chapter when they visited a lab that what they wanted most was a clear explanation - and an apology was helpful, too. Whether there was a way for financial benefit is another debate. When the tissue culture techniques were born - using HeLa cells - there was no one who received money for the cells. The buying and selling of cells began decades later, and initially covered only the storage and handling costs. It has evolved into a huge business with cells that are further altered or genetically changed. It would be nice if some of those companies could consider a retroactive payment to the family, but I wouldn't hold my breath. If every scientist who ever used HeLa cells would send a few dollars to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, it would add up to a very big number, and that would be a good way to provide some kind of recognition to their struggles through the years to deal with the controversy.

  28. Del Mar

    Henrietta Lacks' heirs are entitled to nothing from the multi-billion dollar biotech industry her cells founded because she died too long ago.

    But Walt Disney's heirs still get paid for a drawing of a mouse in short pants that he did in 1928.

    That's completely vulgar. The law is obscene.

  29. Reader

    I have read the book. GREAT book. I was born in Baltimore, not far from Henerrita and born in the same hospital she died. And what I can say is YES, everything in the book is true, even the story about running in the house at night before Hopkins get you. I am sorry that the family received nothing for their biggest contribution, THEIR MOTHER.

  30. Chief

    This families misfortune has been a great benefit to the world. Their mother's recognition, hopefully, will help them find peace.

  31. Linda

    I just finished the book THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS BY R SKLOOT and am both inspired and disheartened by the story of Mrs. Lacks. I feel reasonably certain that Mrs. Lacks would be proud of her contribution to medical research; yet to take her cells without her knowledge or consent and then gain financially from their reproduction with no responsibility to her heirs is unconscionable to me. To know that her daughter died due on large part to a lack of health insurance is one of life's ultimate ironies. We as a society owe her descendants, at the very least, recognition of their mother contributions and at the most quality healthcare for the rest of their lives and the lives of their children. God bless Henrietta and her family. I, as one American, thank her and her family from the bottom of my heart...

  32. Rip

    You're watching decent video quality. If you want freaking blue ray, go buy the doc, wow, some ppl and their expectations, makes me laugh. @sansenoy, no thank you to Vlatko, who's site this is, and who took the time to post the doc you feel isn't 'decent quality'....timing is right on, nothing wrong with the picture or audio, at least you said please.

    Nothing wrong with the quality. Keep up the excellent posting Vlatko, love the site and the quality of all the docs. Thanks again. Peace.

  33. sansenoy

    Does anyone have this in decent video quality, please?

  34. carocooks

    Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and an multimillion-dollars industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same. The film doesn't talk about that. Had it not been for her cells, scientist would have not found a vaccine for polio. Get the book, THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS BY REBECCA SKLOOT.

  35. Dave

    amazing! ...I have never heard about HeLa cells before and this is an intriguing story.

  36. Marilyn

    I worked at a research center/cancer hospital for 26 years and was asked to give a cell sample. They punched a small hole in the back of my calf. I was told 10 years later it was still I know why.

  37. Charles B.

    I've never heard of anything like this. Frightening to the bone. I'm so glad the "Hela" cells didn't thrive in living people like they did in the petri dishes.