Old Pirates Yes They Rob I

Modern Times: The Way of All Flesh

Directed by Adam Curtis (1997)

Film Review

“Old pirates, yes, they rob I, sold I to the merchant ships” – Bob Marley (Redemption Song)

The Way of All Flesh is an early Adam Curtis documentary about an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks. While being treated for cancer in 1951, Lacks had her unique genetic material stolen without the knowledge or permission of her family. Copied and distributed around the world, her cells were referred to as HeLA cells. Unique for their ability to reproduce in a test tube, they were the source of obscene profits for several biotech and cosmetic companies.

Her children only found out after scientists approached them in the 1960s to to request samples of their genetic material. Outraged at the outright theft of their mother’s cells, they tried to sue some of the companies and were told the statute of limitations had expired.

The documentary also examines the ability of the cancer research community to shamelessly blackmail Congress and nonprofit foundations into funding research boondoggles that have no evidence base. In the 1960s they milked the unsubstantiated claim that viruses cause cancer for hundreds of millions of dollars. In the 1990s they would do the same with claims that cancer has a genetic basis.

All this, I might add despite unequivocal historical and anthropological evidence that cancer was virtually unknown before 1900 and the introduction of hundreds of toxic chemicals into our air, water and food chain.