On Our Bookshelves: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
BOOK: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
AUTHOR: Rebecca Skloot
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2010
Several years back, I was visiting Italy with my husband’s family, when I happened upon The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It was on a shelf of books that had been left behind by prior visitors at the Hotel Margherita in Praiano. I was pleased to find a book in English, one that had gotten good reviews no less, and began to read it poolside. My husband (a physician) thought it looked intriguing, realized it was the story behind the HeLa cells, picked it up…and was absolutely fascinated by the story. I gave the book up to him (I know when I’ve been defeated), downloaded something else to read on my Kindle, and got back to Henrietta Lacks after our trip was over.
(An aside: if you get a chance, go to the Amalfi coast, and even if you don’t stay there (and you should), eat at the Hotel Margherita. It is a fantastic place: the food is exquisite, the views are phenomenal, the family that runs it is warm and hospitable, and if there were any justice in this world, I’d be there right now, drinking some Falanghina and enjoying the sunset. Sigh.)
When I did return to Henrietta Lacks, I was also rather taken with her story. She was an African-American woman who died of an aggressive cervical cancer in 1951. A surgeon at Johns Hopkins took samples of the tumor which killed her, and these cells (unlike all others that had been tried previously) continued to reproduce; they became the first “immortal” human cells ever grown in a laboratory. An enormous boon to medical research, the HeLa cells (as they became known) were put into mass production. They were the first human cells to be successfully cloned, and were used for research on polio, cancer, and AIDS. Her family, uneducated and impoverished, knew nothing of this, until they were approached, many years later, by researchers, looking to learn about their genetic background. Unsurprisingly, they became hostile towards and distrustful of scientists and doctors.
Rebecca Skloot did a truly phenomenal job of explaining the science of the HeLa cells as well as the human story behind them, delving into the ethical issues of race and class in medical research, explaining the history of concepts like informed consent, and documenting her own interactions with Ms. Lacks’ descendants as she researched their background and attempted to tell their story with accuracy and justice.
There aren’t easy answers. Was the family wronged? Their privacy was certainly violated. Should they be owed compensation? Well, the scientists and researchers didn’t grow rich from the medical developments they worked on…and yet, it seems manifestly unfair that the HeLa cells (one of the most important things that happened in twentieth century medicine) couldn’t at least guarantee Ms. Lacks’ own family health insurance, decades later. There are no criminal masterminds here, though, and no villains, just flawed human beings. The author befriended Deborah Lacks-Pullum (Henrietta’s daughter) to learn about the family’s story, and tells it pretty dispassionately: there wasn’t a theft, but there was a serious structural injustice, which still affects our society today.
It’s an interesting story, well told, at times horrifically upsetting and at times inspirational. By all means, check it out. Whether you have a background in biology or not, you will learn something of value.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 Whistles
HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon
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Lead-In Image: Broadway Books
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org