Published by Crown Publishers on 2010
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Medical, Health & Fitness, Diseases, Cancer, History, Ethics, Research, Science
Buy on: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks
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?
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.
“But today when people talk about the history of Hopkins’s relationship with the black community, the story many of them hold up as the worst offense is that of Henrietta Lacks—a black woman whose body, they say, was exploited by white scientists.”
This book has been on my TBR list since its release, and like many that find themselves there has lingered for far too long. Even though I’d finally borrowed the book from my aunt at the beginning of the year, my reading slump kept me from picking it up, but the premiere of the HBO film finally gave me the impetus I needed to read the book. If you don’t know, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about an African-American woman whose cells were used without her consent for medical research. This research has led to many medical innovations and cures that have helped the human race for decades. Though many doctors, scientists, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies have profited from these cells they call HeLa, her family had been left in the dark and in poverty.
Henrietta grew up on the same land as her slave ancestors as a tobacco farmer in Clover, Virginia. Later, she married her cousin and moved to Baltimore to begin a new life, which was cut short after Henrietta died from cervical cancer. This cancer was so invasive that the cancerous cells took over her body, and are what help her cells to continue to grow today, 60 years later. Without these “immortal” cells, there would be no polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning, or gene mapping. Her cells have also revealed to doctors how cancer and viruses develop and work in the human body, and how the atom bomb will effect man. Author Rebecca Skloot uses her science background to help the readers understand the science behind Henrietta’s story, as well as piece the events of her life and immortality together.
I loved this book! I had known little about how scientists have done illegal and immoral experiments on African-Americans since the days of slavery, but I never understood how they were able to get away with it. This book was enlightening and frightening. Just knowing that our blood, cells, and tissue can be used for scientific experiments without our consent is mind-boggling. What’s even more mind-boggling is that there aren’t laws protecting people from this happening, since our bodies are only protected when they’re whole. Once stuff is extracted from us, we no longer can claim ownership of our material.
Another thing I enjoyed about this book was Rebecca Skloot’s writing. She spent years digging around for information, including interviewing Henrietta’s family. I enjoyed the relationship she built with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, and how they tried to piece Henrietta’s story together as a team. This novel is heartbreaking as well as inspiring. It also causes you to think about what happened. About the morality of the doctors and scientists actions, and about the idea of how Henrietta’s cells have helped millions of people. Even though her family has never profited from this “gift,” their mother will be remembered for doing something great. Though I hated how screwed over the family was by this reality, I also loved how proud they are of Henrietta’s legacy.