Pages: 370 pages
Publication Date: February 2010
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?
It's hard to review The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because 1) it's non-fiction and 2) I really enjoyed it. It's hard to write a review when there is so much to say but I am trying to prevent spoilers.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells how a Henrietta Lacks unintentional became one of the most important women in science by dying of cancer. But that is just part of the story. The real story is about the children that Henrietta left behind and their struggle to understand what happened to their mother and the secrecy surrounding her contribution to science.
For a non-fiction book, I really connected with the people in it. Normally with non-fiction (and history) the events have already happened and I consider myself more of a watcher. I don't root for the individuals in the story. But I found myself connecting with Henrietta's children, especially Deborah, and rooting for them. Hoping that they someone would finally give them the information that they wanted on their mother.
For those that do not have a science background, do worry. Skloot made all the science behind the Henrietta's story understandable.
To finished this in two days and did not want to put it down. Which is something that I don't often say about non-fiction books.
This is a must read. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.