The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
FTC: This one came from the bookstore, so nothing to confess here, move along.
If you read one non-fiction book this year, make it this book.
At first, I was a little leery of this book, but only because of the science. I pretty much consider science to be Boring. But this book doesn’t read like a science book. It hardly reads like non-fiction. Skloot focuses on the people, and in doing so, she tells the story of Henrietta Lacks AND her cells.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was 31 years old, mother to 5 children, and wife to David Lacks. The Lacks family was descended from both slaves and slave owners. The extended family grew up together, working in the tobacco fields. Henrietta and David were first cousins, both raised by their grandfather in an old slave cabin. In the 1940s David left for Baltimore, to find work in the shipyards, and after a few years, Henrietta and the children were able to join him.
However, by the late 1940s, Henrietta knew something wasn’t right. She felt a knot on her womb, and eventually went to Johns Hopkins. This was a huge step for Henrietta, as Johns Hopkins had a shady reputation among the poor black population of Baltimore. People believed that the hospital would snatch children off the street for use in medical experiments. However, it was the only option available to Henrietta.
Diagnosed with cervical cancer, Henrietta underwent treatment (radium tubes sewn into her vagina, followed by radiation treatments that scorched her skin). Initially, the doctors thought that the treatments were successful, but the tumors soon spread and Henrietta eventually died a very painful death from uremic poisoning (due to the tumors, she couldn’t pee, meaning the toxins built up in her body).
During the ‘40′s and ’50’s, cell research was taking off. Henrietta’s doctor took a sample of her cancer cells. These cells became the first cells to be kept successfully alive in a laboratory. What’s more, they reproduced. The HeLa cell line, as it became known, is still used in medical research today. Henrietta’s cells have travelled the globe (and into space), and were used for research when developing the polio vaccine, in cancer research, and in cloning.
However. And this is a huge however. Neither Henrietta nor her family ever knew that her cells had been “harvested” for research purposes. When her grown children finally heard that their mother’s cells were immortal, they were outraged. And it reinforced the idea that Johns Hopkins was the enemy.
In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot tells Henrietta’s story through her children’s search for understanding. Skloot had long been fascinated by Henrietta Lacks, ever since she had heard a brief mention of her in a community college class taken as a high schooler. Skloot spent years researching Henrietta Lacks, and convincing her children that she meant no harm in digging into their mother’s past.
While the book focuses on the people (the Lacks family, as well as the doctors and researchers involved), it raises excellent questions about medical ethics. Besides Henrietta’s story, it touches on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and other individuals who have been unwitting victims of scientific research. It also ventures into the murky area of who owns cells.
This is a fascinating book, as it provides a look into how the scientific study of cells brought about both good (scientific advances) and bad (the trauma and misunderstanding brought upon a family who knew nothing about what happened to Henrietta’s cells).
While Henrietta certainly didn’t intend to become a medical pioneer, that’s what ended up happening with her cells. Her contribution to science and history is enormous, and she definitely deserves her spot in the Women Unbound Reading Challenge.