The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Broadway Books
Release Date: 2010
Genre: Non Fiction
My Rating: 5 Stars
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells; from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia — a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo — to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family — past and present — is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family—especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance? (Source: Goodreads)
An amazing thing happened as I was reading this book at one of my favourite coffee shop in Nairobi. A woman, who was having lunch with her daughter, stepped up to my table and asked if she could join me because she really wanted to discuss the book. She had read it a couple of years ago and the book had stayed with her. The story of Henrietta and her immortal cells is one she has not been able to shake off and she wanted to know my thoughts on it. So for 15 minutes we sat and discussed the book. And I made a new friend.
That’s exactly what this book does, it stays with you. Henrietta stays with you. Her family, those living and those deceased, stay with you. And the story of her cells also stay with you for a long time after you finish reading.
Henrietta Lacks is a black woman, a descendent of slaves living in the Southern part of the US. She has 5 kids, the last one having been born just before she was diagnosed with a highly metastasizing cervical cancer. Her doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital remove part of her cancerous cells without her consent or knowledge. They try growing the cells in culture and something strange happens to Henrietta’s cells; they don’t stop growing. They keep growing and growing and growing outside her body at a very fast rate. They keep growing even after Henrietta is long gone, having succumbed to the cancer in 1951.
Her cells, now referred to as HeLa cells were used in cancer research, in finding the polio vaccine, in cloning, in gene mapping and discovering the effects of atomic bombs and they formed a billion-dollar industry. Little was known about the woman behind the cells and for a long time, it was wrongly assumed to be a woman named Helen Lane. All this was also unknown to her children, who cannot even afford health insurance, until 20 years later when the doctors begun collecting their DNA information without their consent. At the time, the issue of informed consent did not come into play.
Skloot gives two stories in this book; the story of Henrietta’s cells and the story of the Lackses. It reflects on the appalling treatment of Blacks in the 1950s and the injustices committed by scientists in the name of medical discovery. My heart broke as I read some of the atrocities committed against black people in the name of science. It also broke my heart as I read Deborah’s journey (Henrietta’s only surviving daughter) in trying to come to terms with her mother’s cells and her sister’s death. She was such a pivotal part of the story.
The book came highly recommended some months ago by a couple of friends, but seeing that I am a fiction kind a girl, I was not too keen on starting it, especially because it was all ‘sciency’ and all. BUT….it is so captivating and raw, written in a language so easy to understand even if you have never sat in a bio or chem class, you will still grasp it in it's entirety. I, in turn, highly recommend this book.